When students are better role models than school leaders

The suppression of human rights and free speech starts in school

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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Students need to be able to express themselves; the freedom to do so is not only a question of their intellectual development but also one of human rights. School kids may well rebel at the rules. They may challenge authority, or, God forbid, even resist.

But punishing students for their political beliefs or their opinion of their school is to chastise developmentally appropriate behavior. Believe it or not, students have views on how good (or not) a school is beyond a standardized test score — and it’s in our best interest to hear them. They know their schools; plus, education is meant to help students grow, to help them be free-thinking citizens. Alas, many school leaders seem too afraid of what their students are thinking to let them voice those thoughts out loud, and they suppress their students’ rights in the process.

Last month, Joseph Munno, founder of University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men (UPrep) in Rochester, NY, denied the first black valedictorian of the school, Jaisaan Lovett, the opportunity to give the ceremonial commencement speech, traditionally the preserve of valedictorians. Munno has not explained his decision, but there are several clues in Lovett’s six-year tenure at the charter school, where he had had several run-ins with the school’s principal. Lovett led a five-day student strike in his senior year, according to a USA Today report, because the school allegedly wouldn’t order needed safety equipment for a lab.

“There’s a lot of wrong things that go on at that school, and when I notice it I speak out against it,” Lovett told USA Today. “(Munno) is a guy that doesn’t like to be told ‘no.’”

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If I were the parent of a child at UPrep, I would certainly want to know if the alleged laboratory didn’t have the requisite equipment to keep my child safe. If a school leader will go so far as to allegedly refuse the first black valedictorian a chance to speak to spare himself embarrassment, then that school undoubtedly has bigger problems. Lovett had something important to say, but by taking away his right to speak, Munno exhibited values that are the opposite of what a school leader — a role model — is supposed to uphold.

In addition, graduation ceremonies comprise a major part of a school’s culture; they differentiate one school from the next and establish norms and values. What students will learn from this principal’s actions is that it’s okay to discard community customs over personal differences. A school that suppresses students’ voices isn’t the kind of school where a parent like me would want to enroll his child.

Rochester’s Mayor Lovely Warren, in whose office Lovett was an intern, stepped in, graciously inviting Lovett to give his commencement speech at City Hall instead. It was posted on the city’s YouTube channel, giving Lovett a much wider audience than he would have had as school valedictorian, and parents and city residents a glimpse of his clashes with Munno.

In a statement released on Monday, UPrep’s board of trustees announced that it had accepted Munno’s resignation. “It is the Board’s responsibility to put the best interests of the school and its students at the forefront,” said board president Edward Yansen. “We are initiating an immediate national search for new leadership.”

In this case, some form of justice was administered. Of course, it helped that since the initial article about the incident was published, there has been local and even national media attention on the story. Still, the board’s statement doesn’t include an apology to Lovett and fails to offer an indication that the alleged need for lab safety equipment has been addressed.

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But Munno isn’t the only school official who has created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to suppress students’ voices. Just last month in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, the Neshaminy High School student newspaper, the Playwickian, published an investigation by the outgoing editor-in-chief, Grace Marion, on the improper filing of student sexual harassment complaints against teachers. Through an interview with the principal, Robert McGee, she found that when a student files a complaint against a teacher, it stays in the student’s file, not the teacher’s, and is only kept while the student remains in the school.

Burying student complaints of sexual harassment in the students’ files clearly protects potentially dangerous teachers, while sending the message that the school doesn’t have the students’ back. This misfiling adds insult to injury and is a mockery of justice. In her last published letter, Marion states that her reporters were censored, with several articles being removed from publication. She said that someone called her father to tell her that she would be harmed if a certain article was published. Marion believes the administration outed some LBGTQ+ writers to their parents.

“This month I worked on a piece about the mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints at Neshaminy,” Marion wrote, displaying a rare courage and determination that she probably didn’t learn from McGee’s example. “If that piece doesn’t appear here, it will be in the Courier Times. Or the Intelligencer. If I have to, it will be on facebook and printed out on hundreds of flyers and put in every mailbox in the school district.”

Writer, activist and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, imprisoned numerous times in communist China for his human rights and democracy campaigns once said, “Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth.”

Schools, which are supposed to encourage the pursuit of truth, damage their own credibility and their students’ development when they try to censor their students. In these two cases, the tables have turned, and students have become the role models their educators should have been. No child is too young for his or her voice not to matter. Educators can’t teach kids to value the truth if they’re suppressing students’ ability to speak it.

This column was updated to reflect the fact that the board of trustees of the University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men, accepted the retirement of the school’s founder, Joseph Munno, on Monday.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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