Thursday, May 11, 2023

Richardson ISD Principals Response to Gun Violence Protests? DoubleThink!

A national group, Students Demand Action, organized student walkouts on May 11 to protest inaction on gun violence. According to students I have spoken to, news of this protest has reached students in the Richardson ISD High Schools. Word also reached the ears of Richardson High School principals, who responded in a way that high school principals usually respond. What did they say?

One would have to have just returned from a visit to the Moon not to understand that these protests are directly connected to the mass shootings at the Allen Outlet Mall this past Saturday, May 6. Students in Plano walked out Wednesday. 

How did administrators in Richardson ISD respond to this planned protest? I am saddened to say they responded just like Principal Skinner in an episode of The Simpsons.

RISD Principal engaged in
a deep internal dialogue.

Like many high school parents, I received an email signed by all four high school principals late in the day. As I started reading, it started innocently enough.

It expressed safety as a priority. It starts out with, 

...the school district is committed to providing a secure learning environment for every student, every day.

Great stuff. Keep going!

It notes that RISD has been,  

made aware that a national student walkout is being planned. 

More RISD greatness! The RISD Administration is on top of things!

It goes on... The email says, 

our administrative teams have worked closely with RISD Safety & Security on plans to keep all students and staff members safe, and we will work to ensure that any student who intends to walk out...

Alright. We are doing great! Meetings have been held. Stuff is planned. OK RISD. Let's hear it. You will ensure that any student [their words] who expresses their constitutionally protected right to protest will what exactly? What will you ensure?

our administrative teams have worked closely with RISD Safety & Security on plans to keep all students and staff members safe, and we will work to ensure that any student who intends to walk out does not disrupt the school day. [Emphasis Mine]

Queue record scratch sound. What? That is it?

It goes on and the tone turns into finger wagging. I can imagine Principal Skinner's voice. "now now kids..."

Please take time this evening to remind your student that their participation in any activity that disrupts the school day can have consequences as outlined in the district’s student code of conduct. Students who choose to leave campus to take part in a walkout will not be allowed to return that day and will receive an unexcused absence.
Uh Oh, parents! You are on notice now. Let's pause here and take a step back.

I read this email reminding myself of how poorly the Richardson ISD responded when confronted with a previous incident of student speech regarding student speeches at graduations. In that incident, which I blogged about, the students were the adults in the room. I found myself rereading my own piece and realizing I could repeat parts of it here.

In that piece, I quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas in a case where SCOTUS upheld student rights to wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.  

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.... [A district] must be able to show that [their] action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.

After reading the entire email, RISD's goal seems to be "to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness," as Fortas notes, rather than recognize student rights of speech and protest. This all sounds very familiar. I pointed out that I was not merely making a legal argument in that previous piece.

I frustratingly must repeat the exact words because the Richardson ISD has failed this class. I wrote,

... Tinker, pertains to the attitudes and ideas of free and open speech that a community should treasure. Those ideas were necessary to be in the Justices' minds in Tinker for them to write the words they did. ... Fortas' quotes above are not merely a legal principle but an expression of good community values which expresses the relation of free speech to the schoolhouse...It appears the Richardson ISD administration does not hold such values.

The Richardson ISD principals engage in Orwellian DoubleThink. When someone says "Orwellian," one might suggest this is a bit melodramatic. One might think of totalitarian states with shades of gray, sullen oppressed people, etc. Of course, I do not mean that. However, we frequently encounter the lessons of Orwell, including on the subject of gun violence. One example of DoubleThink often cited is this: How can one claim to be "Pro-Life" yet simultaneously not want to act on gun deaths of children in the United States?

Another example is incidents of public comment periods at school board meetings (including Richardson ISD) becoming expressions of Orwell's concept of Two Minutes Hate, where commenters berated the school board and school officials. The type of rhetoric and constructs Orwell warns about pop up frequently in American politics in subtle and nuanced ways.

In Chapter 1 of George Orwell's 1984 he writes, 

To know and not to know, …, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, …, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself.
In the email, the principals state they favor a secure learning environment and that they provide such an environment. How would they do that for students who participated in these student walkouts?

They say, "Students who choose to leave campus to take part in a walkout will not be allowed to return that day..."  In other words, the RISD provides a safe learning environment. Still, if you participate in a walkout protest, the purpose of which is directly connected to student safety which the RISD says they believe in and provide, then we, the RISD, will not let you back into our safe learning environment.

That's DoubleThink. We keep you safe, but we won't keep you safe. The RISD "hold[s] simultaneously two opinions ... knowing them to be contradictory [and] forget[s] whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again."

Where the heck did, I even learn to understand DoubleThink anyway? Well, in classrooms of the Richardson ISD at J.J. Pearce High School. Orwell's 1984 was assigned reading.

To make matters worse, the RISD has forgotten the basics of civics. As Abe Fortas notes, students have some constitutionally protected rights. The district, threatening to not let students back into schools and threatening to give them an unexcused absence, sends a message of disapproval of a form of speech. It is a subtle form of prior restraint.

Irony abounds! Students who protest are expressing frustration and fear about personal danger enabled by interpretations of the Second Amendment by using their First Amendment rights. What rights are those anyway? The First Amendment protects five rights. Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, and... and what was that last one?

Oh yeah. I remember: right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. I joke about that because, apparently like the RISD, a certain Supreme Court Justice could not remember that right at her confirmation hearings.

Well, I can remember them all. Where the heck did I first learn those darned rights anyway? You are way ahead of me, faithful readers! Well, in classrooms of the Richardson ISD at J.J. Pearce High School.

If you unpack the rights of students who might walk out, you notice they will exercise at least three rights: speech, assembly, and the right to redress grievances. Should they interact with the press or handout literature, they have used a fourth. Should they walk out because their faith informs them to protect the lives of others against violence, then they have used all five. All five!

Does the RISD recognize this? nah! They instead say, 

There are other ways for students to express their opinions without disrupting the school learning environment. RISD encourages students to consider writing letters, sending emails, or making phone calls to legislators to let their student voice be heard.
Remember, parents, the RISD will tell you to talk to your children about student conduct codes, but the RISD will suggest proper forms of speech. There is that word "disrupt" again. The email uses "disrupt" three times and mentions gun violence only once. I am not going on a limb to say that the RISD is not appreciating student voices to the extent they ought to.

Let me conclude by repeating myself again from my previous piece on student speech. In that piece, I quoted Lake Highlands Valedictorian Sara Shelton, and I do so again,

This feels like the exact moment you shouldn’t censor students. It’s the moment to celebrate us

Spoken like a true leader. RISD.... are you listening?


  1. The letter was poorly written. But at heart is a real desire to keep people safe. There are strong opinions on both sides of the gun issue. That divide exists within the student body. Even a planned peaceful protest runs the real risk of getting out of control when that divide plays out at a protest. I can understand if the school administrators decide that because they won't be able to control a protest, especially one that takes place off school grounds, it would be prudent to try to prevent it from happening in the first place. Unfortunately, they chose words that imply they dislike disruption more than they value students' First Amendment rights.

  2. Re: Your particular point that using safety as a reason to lock out students who walk out is Doublethink. You, of course, could be right. But I think there could be a different explanation for that argument. I suspect this is the thought process: administrators fear violence at a walkout, violence that would lead to students panicking and trying to re-enter school buildings, which would bring the violence inside the building, risking harm to even more students. Principals fear that such an outcome would lead to disaster. So in trying to prevent such an outcome, they grasp for reasons to attempt to prevent a walkout in the first place. The reasons they land on are poor reasons, but ones likely to resonate with many parents, leading to a poorly written letter. Of course, that's all supposition of the state of mind of the principals.