Awakened Learning

Oct 7, 2017 by

Teaching civility in the outrage age.

It’s been a long, a long time coming;

But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

Sam Cooke, 1964

These cautionary words were penned over five decades ago.  They were written in the early years of the most tumultuous period in American History and proved quite prophetic for many leaders of the era.  For, the 1960s were a time of deep transition in the United States and much like today, protests of numerous forms and for a multitude of reasons captivated the nation.  Many of the issues that motivated students and others to engage in public protests over five decades ago continue to occupy national attention today.  Civil rights, free speech and gender concerns led to public and sometimes violent discord in the 1960s and the same is seen everywhere today.  In time, the public demonstrations and other activism would lead to greater equality and a more open society.  Even the Vietnam War was abandoned after public support of the conflict faded.  Today, the outcomes of widespread demonstrations and protests remain to be seen, but the emergence of larger discussions is undeniable.

Recent months have proven especially stressful for an already contentious nation.  Polarization and division have emerged as societal norms since the 2016 election.  A summer of discord was embodied in the deadly scenes of Charlottesville.  A new vernacular including “alt-right,” “antifa” and “fake news” emerged to accommodate a rapidly changing social and political landscape.  The simmering debate over Colin Kaepernick’s bended knee protest during the national anthem was re-ignited with the new NFL season.  A shooter in Las Vegas killed 58 concert patrons and left a nation locked in a passionate debate over the second amendment in the wake of his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  There is much to discuss and much to disagree about these days.

School Protests

There is a tradition of civil discourse in American education.  The classroom is a venue for open discussion and as such, controversy and debate are to be expected. In the current social and political situation, students, teachers and even administrators have engaged in pubic and sometimes, defiant demonstrations of opinion.  Friday nights across the United States have taken on a pointed tone as football players drop to a knee while the “Star Spangled Banner” is played. Students have demonstrated support for President Trump with “Make America Great again” t-shirts and at least one teacher has responded by suppressing that message. A Boston librarian refused a collection of Dr. Seuss books gifted by the First Lady, labeling the work “racist.” In an indignant speech before the assembled students, faculty and staff, US Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. General Jay Silveria informed the audience that racist behavior “has no place at the prep school, it has no place at USAFA, and it has no place in the United States Air Force.” There historic precedent for activism in schools remains vigorous in modern times.

Dealing with Demonstration

For school leaders, the current state of public discord presents some daunting challenges.  In the case of the national anthem protests, some schools have responded with policies requiring student athletes to stand while others have accommodated protest and some have chosen to remain away from public view while the anthem is played. Although the rationale for these actions is as unique as the school choosing the policy, they all represent proactive, intentional plans to address a serious issue.  The key to dealing with school protests is proactive school policies.  If school policy is not already addressing free speech issues, it should.  If school leaders are not anticipating the impact of social and political issues, they are inviting complications and disruptions to student learning.

Administrators can begin by understanding the free speech rights of all school shareholders.  Generally, teachers and students are afforded the freedom of speech guaranteed in the first amendment while at school with a very general, but important exception.  Their freedom of expression cannot disrupt the learning environment, See Tinker v. Des Moines.  School policies should be quite clear on what is and is not considered disruptive.  For example, what is the school district policy on wearing clothes soliciting illegal drugs, with vulgar comments, head wear, school dress code, etc. It is crucial that the consequences of violating the policies are clearly communicated.  At a more personal level, school leaders should work to identify and understand shareholders with opposing viewpoints.  This does not mean singling out possible trouble makers.  It does mean knowing who is passionate about what in a learning community.  Perhaps the greatest challenge for administrators when facing protests or demonstrations is transferring the situation into a teachable moment.  By accommodating opposing views, modeling civility and demonstrating compassion, we can demonstrate how a gathering of individuals with differing tastes, values and needs can emerge as a learning community.

Keywords: school Law, school policy, advocacy, legal education issues

Comment Below: what proactive policies does your school district have to encourage civil discourse and student engagement?


Chappell, B. (2017, September 29). ‘You Should Be Outraged,’ Air Force Academy Head Tells Cadets About Racism On Campus. National Public Radio. Retrieved from:

Chason, R. (2017, September 28). ‘Racist propaganda’: Librarian rejects Melania Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books. Washington Post. Retrieved from:

Figueroa, A. (2017, September 29). How Schools Are Dealing With Students’ Right To Protest. National Public Radio.  Retrieved from:

Hagstrom, A. (2017, September 26). School May Ban Protest Against Teacher Who Made Students Remove Trump T-Shirts. Daily Signal. Retrieved from:

Morse v. Frederick. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved from

Neddenriep, K. (2017, September 28). Some Indiana high schools weigh pregame protest phenomenon. Indiana Star. Retrieved from:

Rothman, L. (2015, November 10). History Has Good News for Today’s Student Protesters. Time Magazine. Retrieved from:

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved from

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