Helping Student Exercise Freedom of Speech

One of the most wonderful aspects of an independent school education is that students are encouraged to develop their own academic paths within the structure of a curriculum. On those paths, they are left to discover their voices and their values. The best independent school teachers and staff are encouraging and proud supporters of students as they embark on these journeys of self discovery. Inevitably, if we’re doing our jobs well, our students reach a point at which their belief systems have become so well-developed that they may begin to challenge one another and may even challenge us. To what extent, then, do we allow students to exercise freedom of speech and opinion within the walls of our institutions?

Diversity in all of its forms – religion, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and so on – has always been important to the community at Brimmer. We strive to inspire students to develop their passions and to act on them so that their peers may also be inspired. Ostensibly, at least, social justice work is great, and we embrace it. But what happens when the world becomes so complicated that we have to question whether or not we can continue to support student voices as we always have?

The 2016 presidential election season was a challenging time for many in our community, particularly for our older high school students. Friends who had become close over the years and who felt they knew everything about one another learned that their newly-formed political beliefs were enough to chip away at the strong bonds that had formed between them. There were a lot of surprises as our students learned more about one another and as the headlines they read covered topics they had not considered. As opinions were shared during the election season, our kids had to learn how to listen and respond to one another, and the adults in the community were tasked with supporting students in a new way. Topics of conversation were heavy: racism, economics, immigration, borders, political parties.

Because the climate became so delicate, those of us in the adult community had to discuss with one another how far we would allow students to go in their debates. On the one hand, it was so wonderful to watch these kids think and perseverate on topics and ideas that are so critically important to our country. On the other hand, feelings were getting hurt. I feel that we ultimately triumphed in our support and, at the same time, raised the level of conversation among students by allowing for moderated debate in safe spaces, usually in one of our offices.

Since that time, the discourse among students has remained mostly calm, but the topics remain dense. Students have had questions and guided conversations about newsworthy items such as the travel ban, white supremacy, and the controversy around “taking a knee” during the National Anthem. That final item came into play this fall, as, after quite a bit of discussion at every level, students in the Upper School Choir, Greenline, were granted permission to take a knee during the singing of the National Anthem at Homecoming. There were parameters set around that allowance and a long discussion about actions and consequences that came directly from Mrs. Guild.

So, to what extent do we allow our students to exercise freedom of speech and opinion? It seems we are answering that question every day as new challenges arise. Certainly, our Core Values as the Brimmer and May School will not change, and students must live by them. Most importantly, we must continue to respect one another. I feel confident that despite these new challenges, we continue to successfully guide our students toward becoming thoughtful and confident young adults.

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