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Board discusses free speech, offensive language

“Let’s Go, Brandon” has the attention of officials in Warren County School District.

At Monday night’s meeting of the curriculum, instruction, and technology committee, board members discussed a list of words that are of concern to administration at a district high school.

Board member Arthur Stewart introduced what he described as a “list of banned words formed by a new policy up at Eisenhower.”

He also listed some words that he has found among lists of offensive words elsewhere. “I was shocked to find ‘Founding Fathers’ is now an offensive word.” “Police are your friends, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, gay marriage is against my religion.

Stewart said “liberal” and “Let’s Go, Brandon” were among a list of “banned words” reportedly from an internal email at Eisenhower High School.

He said “Let’s Go, Brandon” is a “very polite way to say, I don’t like Joe Biden.”

“If we try to sanitize our schools… if we don’t have our children talk about that, how do they become responsible citizens?” Stewart asked. “Sanitizing our classrooms is going to ill-prepare our students. If our kids aren’t taking up these discussions, they probably aren’t learning to become responsible adults.”

“That’s what so frightens me about a list of offensive words,” he said. “They have times out of school where they’re going to have to be encountering these things. In school, we’ve got to let them introduce them.”

“Kids don’t give up their first amendment rights when they come to school — they’re limited,” he said, citing the exceptions in the district’s language policy which prohibits language that is libelous, obscene or vulgar, incites violence, or disruptive.

District Director of Administrative Support Services Gary Weber said the list should not be interpreted as a ban on those words.

“I’m going to defend the principal at Eisenhower,” Weber said. “Kids are being bullied. Bullied and harassed.”

As an example, “They’re attaching the term liberal to it. It wasn’t the term liberal that was derogatory.”

“The principal is trying to adopt some type of procedure to address that,” he said. “She’s trying to get the teachers’ radar up to particular language kids are using.”

Stewart said the Eisenhower policy indicates it is a “zero-tolerance” policy. “The context is important,” he said. “No word is out of bounds.”

“We have to be incredibly careful when we write about these things,” he said. “The first amendment is so precious. Whatever we do has to be done with extraordinary care.”

“Our policy has worked for a long time,” he said. “If we think we need a new policy… I don’t want to see our policy changed ad hoc. That’s uniquely our realm.”

“There are lots of words that are forbidden in school,” board member Mary Passinger said. “Language is constantly changing. A word that means nothing to us, that we’ve used a million different ways, can have a totally different meaning that is not acceptable in a classroom.”

She used ‘gay’ as an example of a word that meant something different “40, 50 years ago,” than it does now.

“You have to be in touch with the kids in your classroom,” Passinger said. “They have their phrases and they know exactly what they mean. They can use them in a derogatory manner and they can be bullying.”

“From the viewpoint of the administrators and the teachers who are in the building,” she said. “They need to know what they are supposed to be doing.”

Passinger pointed out yearbook editors have to carefully check the quotes students write for the yearbooks.

“The kids delight in getting phrases into those books that have meanings that are totally different,” she said.

Superintendent Amy Stewart said she had emailed the administration recently to point out the meaning behind ‘Let’s Go, Brandon.’ Multiple board members said “Let’s Go, Brandon,” means “F… Joe Biden.” None used any vulgar language during the meeting.

“To the average person Googling it, it is meant to be that shocking, lewd word,” Amy Stewart said. “It fits that lewd, vulgar symbol. I think that it’s important that we not have that symbol of something lewd in our classrooms.”

The district is facing an elevated level of discipline problems in general this year, according to administrators, not only in the school buildings.

Transportation Manager Mike Kiehl expressed eagerness for the delivery of cameras to be placed inside the buses that transport district students. “I can tell you we really need cameras on the buses,” Kiehl said. “We are seeing an increase in behavioral incidents and we’re seeing an increase in the severity of the incidents on the buses.”

“All of our principals have expressed (concerns) about the behaviors going on in classrooms,” she said. “We have students that haven’t been in classrooms for over a year. We are tangling with ‘let’s get back to class… this is how we behave and this is what we do.'”

She said she wanted principals and teachers to be aware that there are potentially hidden meanings. “Let’s not let this get the best of us because they know what it means and we don’t,” she said.

“I don’t want to be the social police out there,” board member Paul Mangione said. “A lot of this needs to come from parents. I would much rather as a parents have that conversation with my child one-on-one than as a staff member…”

“I don’t agree with the staff member that leaked this internal email to social media. That was an internal email” and any context associated with it that might have helped parents or the board interpret it more accurately was lost because of the way it was release, he said.

Arthur Stewart asked about another aspect of students’ freedom of expression.

“What I heard from several parents at Eisenhower… either their students have been disallowed from wearing Trump hats or MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats,” he said. “What’s going on with Trump hats and MAGA hats?”

Students would be disallowed from wearing those hats — and any hats — inside the schools, administrators said.

“Every student would be asked to remove their hat,” Amy Stewart said.

Arthur Stewart said he was satisfied hearing the list was not a “zero-tolerance” policy against certain words and that the “Let’s Go, Brandon” situation was being handled at the administrative level.

“We’ve had the discussion I wanted to have about it,” he said. “Let the parents push it or not push it.”

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