Archived Opinion

Schools have become political battlegrounds

Schools have become political battlegrounds

By John deVille • Guest Columnist

Given all the challenges and unwarranted criticism those of us who work in public education must endure, I am hesitant to publicly chastise a fellow educator. But the positions taken by Haywood County Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte in a recent blog post lead me to take exception.

Dr. Nolte’s post outlined his (and by extension, the entire HCS district) positions concerning the national movement of student walkouts, which are motivated by the lack of legislative response to school shootings which have visited so many campuses since 1999. 

Dr. Nolte characterized the walkouts as a “tool being applied to advance a political agenda,” that an unnamed “political organization” is behind the movement.

The walkouts are certainly are an effective awareness-raising tool and, as they are designed to influence changes in legislation, they are inherently political. What’s so wrong about that? 

I’m unclear as to what unnamed “political organization” Dr. Nolte refers. There are the nearly 200,000 students who have been on a school campus since 1999 and who have been terrorized by a school shooting. There are their parents, the teachers, and citizens who are saying “Enough,” and who have come together to demand responsible gun ownership laws. Are they the sinister organization of which Dr. Nolte writes?

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Dr. Nolte’s view of the situation is that this unnamed organization’s mission is to “encourage students to walk out of school.” This is perhaps the most distressing part of the post — the dismissive insinuation that students aren’t moral agents in and of themselves. Dr. Nolte seems to believe that students networking with other students is beyond their ability, that they cannot be inspired by the behavior of other students to confront legislators across the country. 

Students can be inspired to do stupid things by other students; and they can be inspired to take a leadership role where adults have largely failed. While students may not have the right to vote, we certainly try to teach students advocacy skills which need not hibernate until they are 18.  

While I understand Dr. Nolte’s desire to minimize conflict on middle and high school campuses which already face so many challenges, his move to stifle student political speech, specifically to quash a mid-day student walkout focused on creating awareness and political pressure leading to reform in gun legislation, is troubling. 

Dr. Nolte categorically stated that Haywood students are “not interested in political agendas.” 

That assertion stands in glaring contrast to Tuscola High junior Grace Feichter who said:

“After I heard about the shooting at Parkland, I was devastated. We had a discussion about the national walkout and if we would be interested in having one at our school, and everybody said absolutely yes.”  

Dr. Nolte’s statement does not comport with Tuscola student McKenzie Yazan who said: 

“I think that it’s definitely not more guns in schools,” she said. “Personally I think that we need to have more reforms and background checks for people wishing to buy a gun.”

Both students’ statements are overtly political as they must be if any meaningful change is to occur. 

Dr. Nolte laments that schools are becoming “political battlefields” and vows to forestall any such efforts in that direction in Haywood County Schools. That is a most puzzling and unfortunate stance.

Schools are, almost by definition in 2018, “political battlefields.” 

Dr. Nolte may recall the spring of 2016 when the Haywood community marched to raise awareness for the sad closing of Central Elementary, due in part to budget cuts by Raleigh. We all marched — parents, teachers, administrators, board members, myself, and yes, students. No, it wasn’t during the school day, but the school was certainly the battlefield. 

What else can our schools be expected to become in a democracy other than a political battlefield when the lack of responsible gun laws have significantly contributed to our schools becoming war zones? 

A simple act of a walkout, whether sanctioned by the administration or not, is a rather measured and reasonable response to the gun violence and terror which has gripped our campuses. Dr. Nolte’s concerns about student safety during a potential walkout must be relegated to the red herring bin as that activity is no more dangerous than administratively-sanctioned activities Haywood County high school students engage in every day. 

The list of tasks which public school educators are called to fulfill is daunting, and I certainly do not envy Dr. Nolte’s tremendous responsibilities. I have the greatest respect for him and for anyone else who has provided a lifetime of service to educating and mentoring young people into adulthood. While it is certainly less messy to go full hamster ball and try to wall the school campus off from the political tides of the day, perhaps it is time to follow the military admonition to “embrace the suck,” to accept what might be unpleasant but what is unavoidable, especially when this particular political debate so directly impacts the students themselves and when they are proving that they are the most eloquent and forceful voices in the debate. 

(John deVille is a former Macon County Teacher of the Year and has taught social studies at Franklin High School since 1996.) 

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