by Steve Chapman
two students from a group called the Trenchcoat Mafia armed themselves with guns and homemade bombs and went on a murder rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., authorities in Portsmouth, N.H., responded in impeccably logical fashion. They moved to head off trouble in their schools by banning ... trench coats. If O.J. Simpson had murdered two people in Portsmouth, the city elders would have outlawed Heisman Trophies.
But they have plenty of company in thinking that a little hysteria never hurt anyone. Schools in several other towns joined in the trench-coat ban, with untold consequences for London Fog. A Maryland county outdid them, forbidding not only long coats but "bulky, oversized" ones.
Students in Illinois have been sent home merely for wearing black. Some school administrators prohibited backpacks after waking up in a cold sweat at a terrifying realization: Book bags might contain something besides books.
More alert minds can detect dangers even farther afield. A Virginia student who had been sporting blue hair since December was suspended after Littleton under a new policy against "unusual or unique hair colors." The officials reasoned that "in view of the circumstances that have occurred recently ... unusual activities/appearances should not be ignored."
Why stop at novel colors? Hordes of blonde cheerleaders could be affected by a Massachusetts legislator's bill making it illegal to sell hair dye of any shade to those under 18. The city council in Pittsfield, Mass., fell just short of approving a measure outlawing "flamboyant and excessively morbid" clothing on students. School uniforms are gaining popularity, a trend that can be expected to end with all pupils wearing orange jumpsuits.
Thoughts and words are also being treated like deadly weapons. Eleven high schoolers were suspended in Brimfield, Ohio, for the crime of contributing to a web site exploring "gothic" themes. A boy in Virginia was arrested after writing an essay that featured a fictional student with a nuclear weapon strapped to his chest.
A 14-year-old girl in Harrisburg, Pa., was strip-searched and suspended for two weeks for saying, during a classroom discussion of the Littleton massacre, that she could understand how ostracized students might turn homicidal. If she could understand it, she could do it, right?
The kids who committed the murders at Columbine High School were a little different, so hypervigilant adults have reached the conclusion that anything different is fraught with peril. Their solution is to ban first and come up with a reason afterward, in an attempt to impose a suffocating conformity within the walls of every school. The main effect of this ostentatious toughness -- and possibly its underlying purpose -- is not to minimize genuine hazards but to disabuse teenagers of the idea that they are entitled to any respect or freedom.
But students ought to be judged according to their behavior on things that matter, not their appearance or any idle thought they happen to express. A kid who threatens or strikes a schoolmate should be disciplined, just as an adult behaving that way would be penalized. One who composes a story about a nuclear terrorist, on the other hand, is no more deserving of punishment than Tom Clancy. Fantasy and reality are separate categories.
Turning schools into replicas of medium-security prisons is excellent preparation for living in North Korea but not a good way to develop responsible citizens fit for a free society. As the Supreme Court said in a 1969 decision overturning a school ban on black armbands used to protest the Vietnam War, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
Expressing thoughts that annoy other people is no grounds for suspension. And conduct that does not fall under constitutional guarantees (such as wearing weird clothes) shouldn't be outlawed merely because it's unconventional. Schools ought to concentrate on behavior that creates a real danger or obstructs education -- carrying weapons, threatening or attacking people, disrupting class and the like.
Seeing a threat in every backpack or funny hairstyle is a symptom of irrational panic, not sensible caution. Perfect safety will never be achieved, in high schools or anywhere else, and the effort to eliminate every conceivable risk, no matter what the cost, will affect a great deal that is harmless and very little that is truly dangerous.
In the end, the vigorous and forcible suppression of non-conformists probably won't even advance the goal of combating violence. Teenagers aren't likely to be taught respect for others by adults who show no respect for them.
June 7, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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