What to do when a gay, bi-racial 17-year-old girl offers to portray in class a fictional corrupt cop in a play and refers to the character as “pig”? Throw a federal civil rights action.
Sometimes the best move is to let something go. Kids will be kids, as the saying go. Thing is, kids may also be litigants, especially if you think your school administration position grants you the power to violate students’ rights.
The mother of the 17-year-old girl filed the federal lawsuit this past February against the Hackettstown School District; teacher Kathleen Matlack; assistant principal Kevin O’Leary; and Jennifer Spukes, a Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying specialist at the high school.
The suit contends the girl was discriminated against and her constitutional rights violated as the district accused the girl of bullying and then issued a one day in-school suspension while she attended the school in the 2016-2017 school year.
That’s the tidied-up summary of the lawsuit, as composed by Lehigh Valley Live, which covered the case but couldn’t be bothered to post the judge’s ruling. So, here’s the missing paperwork [PDF] and we’ll get into the story behind this via the details contained in the federal judge’s order.
Tim Cushing performs yeoman’s service at Techdirt, making sense of the ridiculously convoluted sequence of events leading to this train wreck of a scenario. But after you’ve finished reading Tim’s entire post, as you should, let’s focus on one, and only one, aspect of this god-forsaken mess: the inane belief that the vicissitudes of human experience can be socially engineered into oblivion.
Where do you even start? The bullshit “bullying” accusation? Well, the lawsuit states the student supposedly offended by this wasn’t even in the room when the “pig” comment was made. K.C. apologized for referring to a fictional cop character as a “pig,” even though there was no reason for her to do so.
From there, it’s just an embarrassment of richly embarrassing — if not downright insulting — conversational tactics by a bunch of disciplinarians who apparently felt compelled to straighten out a gay, multiracial student by [checks notes] using the words “nigger” and “fag” in an entirely abhorrent analogy that presumes “cop” is a race or sexual orientation.
In an earlier, more liberal time, it was not merely possible, but likely, that a teacher would reply to the student’s use of the word “pig” to refer to a cop by saying, “how about we don’t call him that,” and move on. But that completely reasonable way of addressing a petty problem, if it’s a problem at all, would be a problem in its own right today.
Not only are the expectations of feelings, embodied by the fact that the school had its very own “Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying specialist” on staff, putting the putative grownups in an untenable position of having to do something, lest they be legitimately accused of ignoring, or complicity, in whatever perceived evil of the moment prevails.
There was, reportedly, a student in the class whose father was a police officer. That student, it appears, wasn’t present when the P-word was uttered, but the student might have been offended had the student been present. Indeed, merely learning of its utterance second hand might have been sufficient to give rise to permanent trauma, if enough adjectives were applied. And despite the student’s absence, what of the complicity of the students present who could not simply sit there and allow a student to say such horrifying words.
But there was a teacher in the room, and there are rules, mandatory reporting rules, about such matters, which is what the Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying specialist spends her day addressing, lest she be forced to find a real job.
It’s not that there aren’t arguments, repeated with extreme passion whenever some oldster fails to grasp that “words are violence” and that the most pragmatic way of dealing with anything that strikes a reasonable person as inappropriate fails to protect the little darlings’ sensitivities.
There were plenty of opportunities to handle this non-issue in a way that would have eliminated the possibility of a civil rights lawsuit. Anything from “doing nothing” to “doing anything but what was done” would have sufficed. But it sounds like these administrators have something against minorities and people who don’t automatically assume cops are saints. And that might cost them in the long run.
Are the administrators to blame? Of course, but then, what are they to do when faced with the plethora of rules, the specter of social condemnation, the irrational and conflicting demands of the parents, the students and their respective mobs? None of this excuses what they actually did, the absolutely insane words and analogies drawn which defy any explanation whatsoever. But even if they were more circumspect, and less outrageously offensive, would there still not be a party to be offended?
It’s unlikely the word “pig” appears on any woke list of hate speech words, absent a particular concern for the welfare of actual swine. Yet, the definition of words that are forbidden would include it, since it certainly has the capacity to offend. What word doesn’t, given the right person under the right circumstances? And who can blame admins for recognizing that the duty to intervene as proxy for the potentially offended has been drilled into the malleable minds of youth? The scenario, having been created, dictates that offense must be presumed and offense must be addressed. It’s the rules.
There is no way to win the battle of socially engineered Utopia, but there are a wealth of ways to lose. Here, the crash was spectacular, a failure of fabulous proportions. But as Tim says, the best solution ranged from “do nothing” to a mild admonition to be nice. These are no longer options in our zeal to achieve a perfectly inoffensive world.