The School District of Rhinelander Operations and Strategic Planning Committee had a look at the first draft of a new district policy addressing student activism Monday.
Superintendent Kelli Jacobi said the development of the policy followed a request by a board member who had concerns pertaining to student demonstrations and walkouts.
The policy as presented Monday:
STUDENT ACTIVISM It is the policy of the Board to encourage students to express opinions and ideas, take stands, and support policies, publicly or privately, orally and in writing. Students may be given this opportunity for expression through established school media. Such expression should not interfere with the educational program or present a health or safety hazard. Students may advocate change of law or school regulations and pursue their advocacy by due process means. Students may not use obscenity, slanderous or libelous statements, or disruptive tactics, or advocate violation of the law or school regulations.
“There is language in the handbook, but nothing specific under this heading,” Jacobi said.
The policy wording is recommended by the district’s consulting firm, NEOLA, which assists the district with most of its policy language. “I have to be honest, I have a lot of notes on my page on this one,” said committee member David Holperin, who questioned the meaning of a sentence in the draft policy that referenced student expression of opinions, ideas and the like, “should not interfere with the educational program…”
Jacobi said that students would need to use a homeroom time, a non-instructional time if it was during school hours. “Neola cautioned us to get too specific in any way, because that just ends up tying our hands in the future,” she added.
The event was held during the school’s homeroom period. A 17-minute student-led walkout took place at Rhinelander High School and James Williams Middle School last spring following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and faculty lost their lives.
Jacobi said that was the only event of its kind last year and it took place during homeroom. The last sentence in the two-paragraph policy reads: Students may not use obscenity, slanderous or libelous statements, or disruptive tactics, or advocate violation of the law or school regulations.
Holperin questioned how the district defines “disruptive tactics,” saying it is “pretty broad.”
“Can they be activists on religion, or race or politics or sexism,” Holperin continued. “Can they protest merchants in town and say we don’t want anyone to shop at Walmart? Or someone else who might be a taxpayer to the district? I’m just wondering if there’s any specific areas where it should not be during school time? If you’re going to allow them to be activists at school, on school grounds is there anything off limits? I guess I’m just curious.”
Committee member Mike Roberts said it would be going down a “slippery slope if you write a 10-page policy.”
Holperin concluded by stating that he would prefer student activism not be allowed at all on school property or during school hours.
“If students want to organize, more power to them, just do it outside of school time and school property,” Holperin said. “It just opens up – where do you draw the line? It can go in any number of different directions. Up until now there haven’t been a lot of protests, but let’s face it, America is becoming more and more polarized.”
Jacobi said the district must follow the law regarding things such as discrimination. “There is the thought that if we restrict it too much then we’re in violation of the First Amendment,” board president Ron Counter said.
The committee requested Jacobi prepare more information and possibly provide other district policies on student activism for discussion at the full school board meeting in November.