Nashville, Tenn., student claims he’s barred from representing his school

Friday, March 6, 1998

School officials with the Metropolitan Nashville, Tenn., School District say they are investigating a student's claim that he was barred from representing his school after he spoke about his school's drug problems during a city-wide student roundtable discussion.


Jayah Kawa, a junior at Hunters Lane High School, said principal Julie Williams told him that he wouldn't be attending any more conferences after he told the city's crime commission that school officials are more concerned about dress codes than drug problems.


But Williams said: “I didn't tell him that, but I told his sponsor that she needs to think twice about who she sends to these conferences.”


Mayor Phil Bredesen, who appointed the commission, said “in a country that is … the absolute defender of free speech, for something like this to happen is embarrassing.”


Bill Wise, director of Metro schools, said he plans to investigate but declined further comment. “You can sometimes jump to conclusions without all of the information.”


Kawa's comments came during a Feb. 18 commission meeting. The roundtable, held at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and later broadcasted by the city's government access television channel, included students from all of the public and private high schools in the Nashville-area.


During the program, Kawa, 17, said it was “absurd” that principals at his school focused more on dress codes, cell phones and beepers than on drugs and other problems.


“I think that schools today, especially my school, there's a lot of emphasis on how we look,” Kawa said. “You look in the bathrooms and there's so much going around. There are cars getting broken into in the parking lot. But they focus on how we look and whether we have a beeper or a cell-phone.


“Well, why don't you try to find out what the real problem is instead of looking for petty stuff?” he asked.


Kawa said that two days after the conference Williams pulled him out of class, took him to a teachers' workroom and lectured him for more than an hour about how he had been “brainwashed by middle-class white people,” saying that his comments reminded her of Hitler.


Williams said that she wanted to ask Kawa where he got the perception school officials weren't doing anything about drugs and violence in schools.


“I wanted to let him know what we were doing, because at our school last year, we caught more students for drug use and possession than any in Metro,” Williams said. We catch “drug users and dress code violators all at the same time. That's not necessarily putting one over the other.”


Williams flatly denied the “brainwash” comment: “If he you told that I told him that he was being brainwashed, that's an outright lie.”


She said she told Kawa that if he had information about drug dealers it was his responsibility as a student leader to turn them in. She said she mentioned Hitler because the German dictator's rise to power came because no one fought against him at first.


“I told him, 'All it took was for good people to do nothing for evil to occur,'”
she said.


Williams said she didn't mind Kawa's comments, “but if he's a school leader and he can't so much as turn in an anonymous note about who he's seen dealing drugs, I do have a problem with his citizenship.”


Bredesen said he learned of the student's claims through a letter from the parent of a friend of Kawa's.


“If anything happened like it is alleged in the letter, then it's outrageous and unacceptable behavior on the part of the principal,” Bredesen said. “If it's shown at some point that this is true, then I think the principal needs to find another line of work.”


Bredesen, who appointed the commission, said he remembered the student well. “He was articulate. He was respectful. He's a student who came to this country from Sierra Leone. I'm embarrassed as an American.”