‘First Amendment Schools’ project links freedom with responsibility

Sunday, March 18, 2001

The tragedy at Santana High School has sparked yet another national debate about how to ensure “safe schools.”

But unlike the post-Columbine rush to install metal detectors and impose stricter speech codes, there's less talk of quick fixes and more consideration of long-term solutions.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige set the right tone a few days after the shootings in California by calling for more after-school programs, parental involvement and character education. This echoes President Bush's earlier proposal to triple funds for character education “to teach our children not only reading and writing, but right from wrong.”

We're learning that the imposition of more and more restrictions on student speech and behavior may put a temporary lid on the problem but does little to create safe and caring learning environments.

Effective schools aren't prisons; they're laboratories for democracy where kids learn what it means to be free and responsible citizens.

America is the freest nation on earth. But freedom shouldn't be confused with license. Unless our kids are taught how to use their freedom, they're likely to end up in bondage to drugs, violence, materialism. Given meaningful opportunities, however, students can learn to exercise their rights and enjoy their liberties responsibly.

That's the message behind a bold, new initiative launched this week.

The project, called “First Amendment Schools,” is a multi-year collaboration between the First Amendment Center and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), the nation's largest professional association of educators.

At first glance, it may seem impractical and risky to advocate more freedom for students 10 days after the Santee shootings. But we will never have “safe schools” (much less a safe society) unless students themselves are engaged in the task of creating free and responsible communities of learning.

What does a First Amendment School look like? In the months ahead, the project will identify public schools around the nation that are committed to developing an educational model that applies the guiding principles of the First Amendment throughout the school culture.

Of course, some of the practices and policies that will inform this model are already established in a number of classrooms and schools nationwide.

Visit Karen Claborn's history classes in Brea, Calif., for example, and you'll see class “constitutions” written and signed by all the kids, as well as the teacher. “Each individual has the responsibility to respect the rights of others” is the motto of one class.

If you ask her, Mrs. Claborn will tell you that when students are given a real voice in determining the kind of classroom they want, discipline problems go way down and learning goes up. Just as important, students practice building a community of “We the People.”

Go to McLean High School in Virginia some Wednesday afternoon and you'll find a press conference in progress, with student reporters asking tough questions of the principal and vice-principal.

Unlike the many schools that require prior administrative approval before articles on controversial issues appear in the school newspaper, McLean gives students opportunities to practice freedom of the press. At the same time, the school ensures that young reporters learn ethical guidelines for fair and responsible journalism.

Spend some time at Park Day School in Oakland, Calif., where elementary kids have class meetings each week to talk about their concerns and problems. On any given day, they'll discuss everything from difficulties with the school computer to the challenges of making new friends. And they'll come up with great ideas for improving the classroom and the school.

The message in all these places is simple: Kids learn to be free and responsible citizens by practicing freedom.

That's also the promise of the First Amendment — and the defining promise of America.