46

Context: New Jersey, USA.

For a school activity celebrating different cultures, my daughter (11 years old) and I built a presentation on Ireland (most of my family is Irish and Scottish descent). As part of the presentation we presented music videos representative of some modern online Irish-ness, one of which was (links to YouTube):

The school Principal’s Assistant removed the video from the presentation and sent my daughter home believing that it contained “offensive language”.

The video uses pieces of Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from The Great Dictator. Regardless of how much of a dirtbag you may think Chaplin was, the speech is undeniably one of the most influential in modern history. According to Wikipedia:

In 1997, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

To be clear: I am not so very bothered at the school removing a piece of the presentation as I am the reason my daughter was given for it: that the language therein was somehow offensive.

(To whom? Dictators and... school administrators? Does the PA think that quoting pieces of this seminal speech makes one a communist? Or a womanizer?)

I find something deeply, fundamentally disturbing that my daughter was told that something historically and culturally significant, something I am trying to teach her so that she does not become a “machine mind”, ignorant to history and the forces at work around her in the world, was somehow offensive language not to be permitted in the classroom.

Again, what bothers me is what my daughter was taught about the video content — contrary to its actual meaning and my wishes to educate her properly. I do not believe that it is reasonable for the school to countermand my efforts to teach her about history that affects us today. There’s an irony in this somewhere.

I wish to address this with the school, but I am unsure how to proceed.

I am unhappy with a PA willing to behave this way. (And I suspect the PA is actually ignorant of who wrote the words and where it came from and what it means, and was just reacting to the initial images of war detritus and the affected vocal patterns used.)

I have already addressed this with my daughter, and she reports that she is no longer bothered with any of this.

I could just pretend it didn’t happen and go my merry way...

12
  • 3
    What's your daughters age group?
    – A.bakker
    Feb 10 at 21:40
  • 14
    Some clarity, please: 1) Does your daughter believe the language was offensive? 2) Did you have a conversation with the PA? 3) Are you taking this personally? (<-- I'm serious. Was your pride hurt at all as a contributor to this presentation to have it censured?) 4) Would you be open to a frame challenge? (A frame challenge is basically an answer that does not agree with your position.) 5) Are you willing to make things for your daughter a bit tougher at school than it might otherwise be?
    – anongoodnurse
    Feb 11 at 13:53
  • 8
    For reference, the whole speech is here: charliechaplin.com/en/articles/… Feb 11 at 14:08
  • 6
    An observation: when using subtitles on the video, “use you” is transcribed as “Jews” - is there any possibility that someone didn't listen, but read the subtitles?
    – Stefan
    Feb 12 at 21:11
  • 4
    Most of the question and of the comments is speculating on why the speech was considered offensive. Have you received any feedback from the school about it ? It is one particular sentence, is it its author, is it pure form (I heard Americans are very touchy about swear words) or about the explicit or implicit message ? Probably that is the first thing to investigate and clarify with the school ?
    – Evargalo
    Feb 14 at 9:41

4 Answers 4

37

I think the first step is to write to the PA asking for clarification:

  1. Was the video actually rejected as offensive? If I understand your post correctly, you only have your daughter's report on that.

  2. If so, exactly what about it was considered offensive?

  3. Does the school have any written policies about what is considered offensive enough to ban?

Don't argue or cite the source just yet, just find out the school's policy and reasoning. It's possible there has been a misunderstanding somewhere.

Once you have the facts established you can make a formal objection to the decision. Your daughter has first amendment rights when at school; the school can only block materials that will disrupt the school or which violate school polices that are not about the message. "Offensive language", for instance, would be a reasonable thing to ban. But tagging a video as "offensive" just because they don't like its message is not acceptable.

At the very least, having to justify their decision in writing might make the school more thoughtful next time.

I have already addressed this with my daughter, and she reports that she is no longer bothered with any of this.

Taking up the fight would seem to me a way of teaching her that this stuff really is important.

If you want backup then try contacting the ACLU. They believe this is important too. You might also want to ask any legal questions over on Law.SE, although you should keep them to what the law says and avoid asking for advice (e.g. "what should I do?").

Oh, and in the meantime, your daughter can spread the video URL to her friends so they can see the video that the school wanted to ban.

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  • 22
    This is a very aggressive response to an act the child no longer cares about. I think it's important to fight for what's right, and I really liked the first part of your answer. However, respecting the feelings of the child involved (it's her presentation, and her life, at her school) is one of the responsibilities of parenting (imo). One can instill values by discussing how the PA was wrong without disrupting the daughter's life at school with a lawsuit. There are hills worth dying on, and there are traffic bumps on the road of life. The difference is significant.
    – anongoodnurse
    Feb 11 at 14:07
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    I agree. I was responding to the question asked: how to address this with the school. Whether that is a good idea is basically a decision for the OP. Some people feel more strongly about such matters than others. Also, "no longer bothered" may be her daughter trying to move past something that was hurtful; she worked on this too. We don't have the context. As for a lawsuit, well, there are a lot of steps before it gets that far, and IME an important part of getting a resolution before it goes to court is looking like you mean business. Otherwise you just get brushed off. Feb 11 at 14:16
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    Also, I was responding to the OP's view that this was "deeply, fundamentally disturbing". I agree; part of this is very much the message that we send to children about how to live in society. Schools have a tendency to preach freedom and individuality while actually behaving like stalinist dictatorships. Children learn from that. "Here is how to deal with petty dictators" is an important lesson, so in part I wanted to support the OP's feeling that this is seriously wrong. Feb 11 at 14:25
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    I agree about schools (well, they don't send kids to gulags for free labor, so I'd say your characterization is a bit hyperbolic), and noticed the irony in this situation immediately. My opinion is just that, an opinion. FWIW, I tend to rely on the laws of the land heavily, and have gone to court over issues most others would brush off, but for myself. For my kids, we discuss and decide.
    – anongoodnurse
    Feb 11 at 14:34
  • 7
    +1 for pointing out that even as children, students still have first-amendment rights at school. So many people are unaware of this and are led to believe that teachers and school boards have some kind of extra-legal authority that they do not. Feb 12 at 13:18
18

Ask the school for a clear explanation as to why this happened.

They should be able to provide a basic explanation as to why the video was removed. And if they don’t? That is the real problem here.

There are a few answers here that go quite deep. But I think the core issue here is quite simple:

“I wish to address this with the school, but I am unsure how to proceed.”

Knowing that let’s look at the key issue here:

“The school Principal’s Assistant removed the video from the presentation and sent my daughter home believing that it contained ’offensive language’.”

Okay, here’s the solution: Contact the school’s principal and ask for clarification as to why the video was removed.

  • Was it language?
  • If so, what exact language?
  • Once you know that, simply ask “Why was that an issue?”
  • Request that the info regarding the rationale for the actions of the Principal’s Assistant be put in writing.

And that’s pretty much it.

There is really no deep drama here (yet) so just ask for the basics: Why was this done?

On a very basic level, even if your daughter is “no longer bothered with any of this” what is the “this” that she is no longer bothered by? Does she just want this to go away?

My attitude is if your daughter had her worked censored, and was punished, even if there is a disagreement about the “why” she should at least know that she is 100% entitled to a “why.”

Having content removed from one’s work is one thing; not being provided with a clear explanation is another thing. She, and all of us, deserve to know why something was done in a case like this.

17

I like Paul's answer very much for the most part, but I would like to add a couple things -- so this is a supplementary post.

  1. Even if you don't have children, and even if you rent and don't pay school taxes directly, you have a legitimate interest in this. And in this case you co-authored the presentation.

  2. You may quietly inquire without involving your daughter, if you wish. If the school retaliates against her as a result, then the problems at that school are bigger than what you described.

  3. State policies and local (school district) policies are available on the web. I suggest you look those up before asking for more information about the incident. Also the Student Conduct guide given to parents and students in September. (You can ask for another copy if you don't have it handy, and it might be on their website.) And see if you can find something like New York's "Dignity for All Students Act (DASA)." Apparently NJ has something similar but I haven't found it yet. If you can't find it either you can ask at Law.SE. (source)

  4. Paul wrote, "your daughter can spread the video URL to her friends." Watch out. This could run afoul of the student conduct guidelines involving off-campus electronic communications. Perhaps the safest thing would be to quietly ask questions first.

  5. Paul wrote in a comment, "an important part of getting a resolution before it goes to court is looking like you mean business. Otherwise you just get brushed off." Maybe Paul has known people who got brushed off -- but I think it can be helpful to start with optimism. And there are non-aggressive ways of getting their attention. So I'd suggest that you try not to appear to be coming out swinging. If your initial email is not answered, you can send it again with a "Perhaps this email slipped between the cracks" intro (it happens to all of us sometimes, after all). Then you can work your way up the chain with a forward and "Perhaps I misdirected this message (see below). Can you suggest the appropriate person to direct it to?" Also a phone call can help (you can ask the secretary for permission to forward the non-responded-to email to him/her -- this often helps, as school administrators get inundated with email).

  6. There's another tool I want to mention that might come in handy at some point -- a FOIA request. If you think you're at that point, please don't hesitate to ask about that specifically.

On a personal note, if I lived in your school district, even if I didn't have any direct connection to the class(es) that were involved with these presentations, I would be quite concerned to learn that an administrator was reviewing all the presentations ahead of time, to begin with. I would wonder what led to that level of administrative oversight. You might want to take a look at local newspaper archives to see if there have been issues in the past that are having current ripple effects. Also, if there's a school newspaper (unusual in middle school, but it doesn't hurt to check), an informal conversation with the newspaper advisor could be illuminating.

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  • 3
    When I googled student conduct guidelines involving off-campus electronic communications (wtf?) - it was all about NJ, and a Supreme Court case that upheld it as the preview of administration, +1
    – Mazura
    Feb 13 at 5:07
  • 2
    @Mazura - I guess you mean purview? / It's quite common nowadays. Take a look at kidshealth.org/en/parents/cyberbullying.html Feb 13 at 16:49
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This answer assumes this is a public school. Most of it will be applicable to private schools as well, but there are some important differences, particularly in the power dynamic. This answer is also from the point of view of a parent, not an educator, but a parent who has managed conflict with their school effectively.

One of the most important things to do when talking to your child's school is to come to the table with a positive, constructive attitude, and to make that clear from the outset. Decide, before you go, what you hope to get out of the conversation, and be realistic; don't go in expecting to get everything you would want in an ideal world. Rather, focus on what is achievable right now - and usually in that first conversation the goal should be discovering what is achievable. Also remember that the people at the school are, well, people; they have reasons for doing what they do, and some of that is due to having information you don't have, as well as motivations that may not perfectly match yours - without being unreasonable, necessarily.

In this case, you need to decide between a few goals. Is the purpose of the meeting to find out why they made the choice they did? Do you want them to know how you feel? Do you want them to take a concrete action (for example, when you say she was sent home was that an actual suspension - in which case you might want that removed from her record)?


In the first case, finding out why, the best approach is to be open. Something like, "Hello [P], Would it be possible to meet about [D]'s recent assignment? I would like to find out more about what happened so I can best support her learning at home. Thank you." is best. This has a few things in it that are important for getting the most out of the school:

  • Open attitude - not making judgements
  • Asking how you can best support the school
  • Directly connected to a recent issue

Then in the meeting you would mostly listen. Ask for a summary of what happened. Ask for why they chose to take the actions they chose. Ask what specifically was objectionable. Ask what she could do differently in the future. All of this is asking - and asking without including a judgement in the question. This is quite difficult to do - so formulate your questions ahead of time, and don't deviate from them. Don't interrupt, and don't go too far into the followup here - if the point is to find out why they took these actions, just find that out. Then decide on any further action at home, when you have time to think!


If you want to have them take concrete action, the best approach in my opinion is to start with a fact-finding meeting like above. Then, come back to the school a few days later with a carefully crafted message incorporating what you learned in the fact-finding meeting, politely asking for particular actions to be taken based on your reasoning. It needs to be polite, and it needs to be specific and concrete; and it needs to be thoroughly grounded in the school's policies, as opposed to political theory.

It should also be relatively easy for the school to take - don't ask for something that's either hard to do, or would involve conflict. The school administrators will tend towards what they think is the path of least resistance; make that path doing the thing you want! This is where being slightly annoying is helpful, but only slightly - on the level of making it clear what it will take for you to go away and stop emailing them.


If, however, you mostly just want them to know how you feel, the best approach is a politely worded letter letting them know how you feel. One that doesn't suggest any action, and doesn't require a response beyond a "thank you for letting us know". It should not accuse anyone of anything, and should be very carefully worded to not impugn anyone's motives; simply state how you feel, something like:

Dear P; Based on what happened with the video last week, I wanted to let you know about the concerns I have related to how that was handled. My daughter worked very hard on this project, under my guidance, and we felt that she designed an effective presentation that put every part of our history together. It was very disappointing to learn that not only did the P.A. disapprove of this work, but that, rather than coming to me and discussing their concerns, they [did x y z]. I would like to support my daughter's education in every way possible, and support the school in their mission; I certainly do not want to cause strife in the classroom or the school. I am concerned that my daughter will not feel safe sharing her ideas or beliefs in the classroom setting as a result of how this was handled. Respectfully, Dúthomhas.

The important part here is making it clear how you feel - and in how those feelings impact the school - while underlining your respect for the school and its mission, and your role in her education. Keeping it as positive as possible, while still making your very real feelings known, is important here. (And I'm just approximating your feelings here - this is mostly how I would probably feel in this instance.)


Hopefully the TL;DR is clear by this point - communicate with the school politely, and be very clear in your own mind and in your communication with what your goal is from that communication. Don't break into the legal side of things unless you truly would go that route (which I don't encourage); and don't cast blame. Especially don't blame specific people - then you get into where people have pride involved, and that makes it far less likely to accomplish your goal.

And, do consider your child's wishes here; whatever you do, keep her out of it, since that's what she wants. She's old enough to have some understanding of the impact of this, and given you've raised her to be thoughtful and understand her role in society, you should give her that choice.

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