Two teachers at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in South Yarmouth, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, are under suspension with the threat of being fired, after they waged an anti-war protest during a year-end student awards ceremony last week.
The teachers held up anti-war signs during the part of the ceremony where students who are entering the military after graduation were recognized - generating an uproar from the student body, community, and other teachers as well.
Under our system of government the two teachers absolutely have the right to make their point, just as the school administration has the right to bring disciplinary action if it is deemed justified. There are after all, rules of proper conduct within the schools that apply to staff as well as students.
But there is more to this than political statements and free speech. There is the question of decorum and whether a school awards assembly, the sole purpose of which is to focus on and recognize the students, is the proper place to assert adult political agendas.
The question takes on even more significance since the father of a US Marine who was killed in battle in Afghanistan last year was invited to, and in attendance at, the ceremony. According to the Cape Cod Times, Yarmouth police Lt. Steven Xiarhos lost his son, U.S. Marine Cpl. Nicholas Xiarhos, to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in July 2009.
Nicholas Xiarhos, a 2006 D-Y grad, was among the first group of students to receive a plaque recognizing their military service, the Times reported. His dad was present when the teachers launched their protest.
And herein lies my concerns with the actions of the two teachers. Did they take so much as a millisecond to consider how their protest would impact the father of a fallen Marine who graduated from that same school, and only four years ago stood at a similar ceremony where his decision to serve his country was applauded?
Did they feel it was absolutely necessary to add a counterpoint to the obvious lesson that is facing every single new recruit at that ceremony - that military service is inherently dangerous, and that they too could be facing injury or death in the very near future? Did the teachers have so little faith in the students, and by extension their four years of teaching them, that they believed the lesson would be lost in the glow of a few seconds of applause during a school assembly?
Did they consider how their protest would feel like a punch in the gut to a man who in all likelihood is still trying to comes to terms with the loss of a child? Did they consider that after their brief moment in the spotlight of publicity - that certainly is shining much brighter due to the timing and location of their protest - that the father of a young man who will never again walk the beaches of Cape Cod or sit at his family's table for dinner, will go home to an emptiness that will never again be completely filled?
Did they have to pick that spot and that time to make their statement? The teachers said after the ceremony that they were protesting military recruitment. OK, I'm fine with that if they believe in it. I don't agree with them, but I do support their right to differ.
So why not go to the recruiting offices? If the military is the source of your disagreement why not protest the military instead of high school students?
Would that not have been just as public? Or was this a calculated maneuver to garner as much publicity as possible? It certainly is within the realm of possibility that the teachers knew Steven Xiarhos would attend the ceremony.
They stood, holding up their anti-war signs when the rest of the assembly was sitting, and they sat silently when the others stood and applauded the coming sacrifices of the students who are joining the military. In retrospect it was a small, but very crude protest, on a par with the viciousness exhibited by members of the Westboro Baptist Church who show up at the funerals of fallen soldiers to protest the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy toward homosexuality.
If the protesting teachers did consider just how hurtful their actions would be to the family of a fallen Marine, then they have lost all credibility in the education profession. Resorting to shock tactics may be a traditional form of protest for street thugs and anarchists, but teachers in a high school assembly?
Definitely not cool.
If the two teachers didn't consider the extended consequences of their actions, they need to return to school themselves for remedial training in humanities and interpersonal relationships.
Regardless, there are far better ways to make a point, that are far less intrusive and far less hurtful to others who undoubtedly are struggling, and will be for the rest of their lives, with the universal questions of war and peace, honor and sacrifice.
Our Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but our laws also give people the right to remain silent. It would be wonderful if these teachers could distinguish between the two, and apply them at the appropriate times.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010