How's Your School Climate?

By Lawrence Hardy

Suspended? For wearing white T-shirts? Local news crews knew a hot story when they saw one, and by lunchtime they had gathered -- cameramen and TV reporters -- across the street from Soquel High School near Santa Cruz, Calif. Earlier that day, a handful of boys had been suspended for one to three days for wearing the T-shirts to a senior class picture. Principal Ken Lawrence-Emanuel said they belonged to a “white power” group that had been warned repeatedly about such displays. But one of the boys said they just wanted “to identify ourselves and look back and say that was our group of friends” Another asked: “How could I be a white supremacist? I’m Asian.”

Naturally, the story hit the blogosphere. One right-wing writer, whose site links to anti-immigrant groups in the United States and Europe, accused Lawrence-Emanuel of acting “as judge, jury, and executioner” for nothing more than suspected “thought crimes.”

If you’re a school board member, administrator, or anyone else connected with the public schools, you might feel for the principal and the no-win situation he faced. And you must surely know that, just as in the case of the “kissing kindergartner” from years back, there is another side -- a big “other side” -- to this story.

Where does a school go from here? Since May, the path has been clear for Soquel High, which has taken advantage of this divisive incident, looked critically at the climate for all students and faculty, and worked to make the school a place where people of all races, ethnic groups, wealth brackets, sexual orientation, etc., feel safe and valued.

At a time when the nation finds itself split over politics, economics, immigration policy, and other divisive issues, schools everywhere need to be able to tune out the noise and focus on the essential work of educating an increasingly diverse generation of students.

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