Okaloosa Schools And Fundamental Liberties

Mr. Denninger’s passionate case for school reform highlights the arbitrary nature of the state monopoly known as our education system, and the apparent contradiction that free people are taught in the autocratic state institutions known as public schools. Removing the barriers to real competition among schools, both economic and legal, would go a long way to preventing the arbitrary use of power that state schools across the country have become accustomed to, as well as make them better teachers.

I was called at approximately noon today to inform me that my daughter had sat at a table with other students, rather than at the table for her class. Her purpose in doing so, which she informed me she intended to do last evening, was to peaceably assemble with another student of her acquaintance during her lunch break. For this act of peaceable assembly she had been told to go to lunch detention at the front of the room, and she had politely refused. For this refusal she was sent to the office. These facts have all been admitted to and are without dispute.

A call was made to me in an apparent attempt to enlist me in applying some sort of sanction for her conduct. You may consider this letter my pointed and vociferous refusal, and a direct challenge to this School policy.

In reaching my conclusion I asked what purpose of the alleged rule had that she violated, that is, how her decision to peaceably assemble with another student of her acquaintance during non-instructional time while consuming her lunch in any way harmed the educational mission or execution within the school day. I was told that in the past some students had behaved in an unruly manner, including leaving trays and other debris after departing the lunch room at some point during previous school years.

However, it was explicitly admitted that she had not committed any such offense. Under questioning the administration admitted that she properly disposed of her tray and other debris, there was no student displaced from a seat at the table to which he would have otherwise been entitled and there was no misbehavior such as a raucous conversation. The alleged rule which she had intentionally broken, that of demanding that she refrain from said peaceable conversation with a person of her choosing, under obvious logical analysis, is nothing more than both prior restraint and collective punishment for an offense that has not in fact taken place. The sanction applied also implicates a fundamental human right of peaceable assembly.

Certainly any school has a right to sanction students who are unable to behave in a cordial and peaceable manner during lunch or any other time while on school grounds. It is unquestionable that the educational mission of a school requires that conversation between students be refrained from during instructional periods when attention should be paid to the material being presented. But no such argument can be made of disruption of the educational environment by a student simply choosing to have a quiet conversation with a friend while consuming lunch in the cafeteria.

Further, I was told that she had a right to attempt changing this policy through a representative process in the Student Council. Upon further questioning, however, this assertion proved to be false. Not only does the Student Council have no binding power of any sort this matter had been previously put to them in past years, they had passed open seating at lunch as a resolution, and the Administration then unilaterally revoked the decision of the Council instead of applying sanction to any wrong-doers. This was a mistake on the part of the administration as my willingness to cooperate always instantly evaporates if an attempt is made to deceive for the purpose of enlisting my agreement.

Collective punishment and deprivation of a student’s right to peaceable and quiet assembly with their classmates during non-instructional periods of the day is a poor and unwarranted excuse for the apparent rank arrogance and incompetence displayed by school staff who are unable or unwilling to do their job in policing the lunchroom and sanctioning those students who engage in inappropriate behavior on an individual basis.

Nobody who is aware of recent world events can miss the fact that we currently have an entire nation that is on its feet over exactly this right – that of peaceable assembly. The Egyptian body politic has risen and refused to cede the streets. I cannot help but draw the parallel between Ruckel Middle School’s refusal to recognize this fundamental human right and those protesting in Egypt, and find it particularly ironic that a civil rights complaint given to the governor was found discarded in the trash outside Port Said.

The right to peaceful assembly and conversation is a fundamental human right and the peaceful exercise thereof is being displayed right now, literally “in your face”, on television each and every night.

It is outrageous that our so-called “public schools”, which claim in their handbooks to be “a partnership between student, parent and school”, would fail to recognize, support and protect such fundamental human rights simply for the convenience of their incompetent staff. It is beyond ridiculous that Ruckel Middle School would choose, when challenged on these facts, to apply collective punishment rather than yield to the clear logic that is being demonstrated each and every day on international television.

Our schools should be teaching and respecting fundamental liberties, not wantonly abrogating them and threatening dissenters. Each student should be able to recite the three fundamental human rights: Life, Liberty and the pursuit of (but not entitlement to) Happiness. The right of free speech and peaceable assembly, contained in the First Amendment, is formal recognition of a portion of that right of Liberty. All rights may be infringed upon only where doing so reasonably prevents another’s rights from being harmed.

This is fundamental to our government and nation’s history and our schools, collectively and individually, have an affirmative obligation under both ethics and law to not only teach this but live it.

I have made clear to my daughter through her years at Ruckel and prior to that at Bluewater Elementary that all respect is earned. There is in fact nobody, not even myself as her father, who is owed respect. My first and foremost task in raising her from infancy to adulthood is for her to transition from someone dependent on another, in this case myself, to an independent adult who is able to think for herself, recognize what human rights are, and stand for them on her own two feet. Part of this educational process is informing her of the fundamental human rights declared but not granted in The Declaration of Independence, that rights are not bestowed by a nanny government or authority figure but rather are unalienable, and that with those rights come responsibilities.

In this case she is responsible for conducting herself in a cordial fashion while on school property and adhering to reasonably defensible rules that have a sensible and sound connection to the conduct of the school’s educational mission. The US Supreme Court supports this position. The Court has ruled that students do not cede their Constitutional Rights in the general sense at the door of a publicly-funded school. Only those constraints that can be linked to a colorable impairment of the educational mission and environment of the school, when they impugn fundamental liberties, are permissible. In Tinker .v. Des Moines (1969) the United States Supreme Court held that peaceable speech, in this case two students peaceably wearing armbands protesting the Vietnam War, could not be lawfully removed from school for their refusal to comply with a demand from administration officials to remove the armbands.

This is exactly the issue before Okaloosa County and Ruckel Middle School.

I am fully in support of a reasonable student dress code, restrictions on the use of electronic devices during instructional hours and any other conduct that could otherwise have a rationally-argued negative impact on the educational mission at Ruckel. She is fully-aware of my support of these objectives and constraints.

At the same time she is expected to both challenge authority when it is unjustly displayed in an abusive or repressive form and is, as I have explained to your administration in the past, within her rights to refuse to respect those who deliberately and intentionally engage in such conduct. She has never been and is not now or in the future under any obligation, either by the rules of my household or under well-settled law of The United States, required to cede to any authority that fails to comport with the above.

Civil disobedience has both a long and colorful history throughout the world and comes with the risk of sanction, which she was fully aware of at the time of the incident. Her conduct was not furtive in any way; there was no attempt to conceal the act and her intent was to lead to a reasonable discussion and resolution. The actions by your staff probably shouldn’t surprise me, given the nature of collective and prospective punishment that was first devised and implemented.

Ruckel and all other schools should be aware, however, that sanctions imposed by putative authority figures are subject to review through several paths. First, of course, is public exposure and protest. You might consider my publication of this letter as part of that. Perhaps this is a trivial matter in most students’ and their parents’ minds, or perhaps not. The decision as to whether other students and their parents wish to protest and what form that protest might take is, of course, up to them. Second, sanctions that appear to be improperly applied or impugn a fundamental liberty with justification can and may lead to legal review. I, as with all citizens, reserve the right to initiate that lawful and proper process should I deem it appropriate.

After careful consideration I cannot support the claimed need for a seat assignment in the Ruckel cafeteria as a means of prospective and collective punishment without any offense of the peace having first taken place. These students are not in primary school; all are of ages 12-14 and can certainly comport themselves with reasonable decorum and make it to their next class. Those who are unable to do so should be individually punished for their transgressions. In short, this restriction is unconscionable and must be dropped. If school staff is incompetent to supervise the students they must be publicly identified, fired and replaced.

Our school employees work for us as parents, not the other way around. They run a school, not a prison. Our children and school students have rights; they are not pawns on a chessboard or notches on a broomstick. We as the source of school funds have every right to demand accountability for every dollar of our tax money that is spent and the policies implemented. When apparent idiocy rears its head you can expect me to hold the schools to account, as I have in the past and both will in the present and future.

A version of this letter was sent directly to the administration. If you agree, the Principal is Ms. Goolsby and her fax number is (850) 833-3291. The Superintendent for Okaloosa County Schools, Alexis Tibbetts, has a fax at 850-833-3436.