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What's at stake in banner case

July 02, 2007

Re "Got discipline?" Opinion, June 28

Jonathan Zimmerman's critique of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' position intrigued me. Yes, Thomas' nostalgia is sentimental and certainly limited -- he's never worked as a teacher in a junior high school classroom. But Zimmerman simply replaces one nostalgia for another one: Boys, sigh, will be boys. Schools have always been and remain violent places (Virginia Tech?). What's changed is that the male schoolmaster is a vanishing creature -- eight out of 10 teachers are now women.

How interesting that Zimmerman ignores implications of the "boys will be boys" logic for the embattled female principal, who doesn't have to be "particularly cruel" to find herself unsupported in the desire to feel safe or establish limits at school. She may be targeted by students or parents for standing up against student-to-student bullying, or bullying against herself. This principal simply took down a banner, and the plaintiff sued her. The real difficulty with the new Supreme Court ruling is that, once again, judges are replacing teachers, parents and local communities as the final arbiters of when it's OK to say no to a kid. On the front line of this conflict, inevitably, are the women who work in schools.

JO SCOTT-COE

Riverside

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Zimmerman concludes his commentary about the purpose of schools with the observation that the big question -- What are schools for? -- will never have a single answer. I can offer a single answer: In our culture, you have to follow the money. Because teachers aren't paid enough and school budgets virtually mandate large (and crowded) classrooms, schools can't be about teaching and learning. So teachers baby-sit. That's what schools are for: to baby-sit the kids until they're old enough to get jobs to earn money and pay taxes.

Maybe Justice Thomas is not too far off after all. Having dumbed down the learning, at least let's have the kids be obedient. I learned this in school.

JOHN H. GEERKEN

Claremont

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Zimmerman takes the position that the question before the court is one of discipline. Justice Thomas denies the right of students to have free speech. Both miss the point. The students who bore the banner "BONG HiTS 4 JESUS" were appealing solely on the basis of their claim of their right to free speech. They cited a case from the age of the Vietnam War, wherein students at a public school, as a war protest, wore black armbands on school grounds. The principal refused to permit them to do so. On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld their right of free speech. That was a different question regarding the Constitution -- one of the right of political free speech. This one was different. The bong banner was a tribute to religion, exhibited on the premises of a public school. The Constitution provides for the separation of church and state. The students can use that banner but not at publicly owned schools. I hate to agree with Thomas, but his decision is correct -- for a different reason.

RICHARD HULL

Long Beach

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