We Are Not Free to Be Mean

This is a guest blog by my personal friend Tina Owen-Moore (Founder, The Alliance School of Milwaukee, and current Fellow, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ed.L.D. Program). Tina originally published it at LinkedIn. I am presenting it here with her permission:

Like many others, this weekend’s incidents in Virginia have me angry. A group of white supremacists, people who propose to believe that they are inherently better than others, are using the freedoms that we have been guaranteed in this country to diminish the value of others, create chaos, and cause harm. It’s ridiculous, and we need to stop tip-toeing around the idea of freedom of speech and hold them accountable for their actions. There is no doubt in my mind that these people know that they are causing harm, and they are choosing to do so because they want to do exactly that – cause harm. This is bullying at its extreme, and it must be stopped.

As the founder of a school with a mission of addressing bullying, I feel compelled to speak up when I see explicit bullying happening on a national scale.

We are blessed to live in a country where we are guaranteed many freedoms that are not guaranteed in other places. With those freedoms come responsibilities, so as teachers, parents, and leaders we have to a unique role to play in making sure that our freedoms are not used to cause harm and we must be active in preparing our young people to become stewards of these freedoms.

I worked deliberately to make sure this happened at our school, and we have to start thinking about how we do this as a nation.

Our students enjoyed a great deal of freedom at Alliance, so there was always the question of how we would make sure people aren’t hurt while learning to be free. We did this by making the idea of “do no harm” the principle that guided our rules, our consequences, and our community agreements.

Since, our rules were built around the idea of not harming others, this meant that our students understood that they could say what they wanted to, but if what they chose to say, wear, or do caused harm to another person or group of people, than they would be held responsible for that harm.

At the school I taught at before starting Alliance, many well-meaning leaders struggled with how to tell adults that they couldn’t tell young people that they were going to Hell for being gay. They felt that if they told the staff members to stop, they were infringing on their religious freedoms.

Religious freedom does not give us the freedom to walk around condemning people for what we believe is sinful. No one would tolerate someone walking around telling people eating bacon in a restaurant that they were going to Hell for eating pork. It would be considered harassment, a deliberately harmful act. So, why would be allow someone to walk around in a school telling children that they are going to Hell? Or for that matter, telling people of color that they are “less than”?

The fact is that we all have the freedom to believe what we want to believe and to state our beliefs, but we do not have the right to harm others with those beliefs. And when we are using our freedoms to hurt others, leaders have a responsibility to step in and put an end to it.

For example, an extremely religious student should not be allowed to repeat his religious beliefs directly to a person who has asked him to stop (because in such a context, the purpose can only be to cause harm), and an LGBTQ student should not be allowed to repeatedly call that religious student names for holding those views. That means that a student should not be able to wear a shirt that says “I hate ___________ (fill in the blank with any group of people”), nor should a student be able to draw hate symbols on a desk or textbook without facing consequences for those actions.

Students can and will hold different views. We all hold different views, that is the reason behind our basic American freedoms, but we also must teach students how to be responsible for what they say and how it impacts those around them. This starts in school, where we must teach the idea that we are all responsible for the harm that we cause.

People will say, “but won’t everyone say that everything is harmful?” It is true that those who would cause harm have traditionally found ways to use the systems that were designed to stop them to cause harm. But two things have a way of stopping this – one, we are reasonable people and know when harm has been caused and when someone is using the system to cause harm, and two, if there is ever a doubt, this is why we have the concept of a jury of peers, which can and should be used in schools, as well. Students know each other well enough to determine whether or not an action reasonably caused harm and whether or not consequences need to be assigned, and students want to create an environment where harm is not the norm.

At Alliance, our restorative practices class served as a community of peers that could help to repair harm when it was unintentional and assign consequences when the intention was purposeful. If a student posted something hateful on social media, that student could be asked to sit before a group of his or her peers to repair the harm than had been caused. Sometimes the students assigned consequences that pushed that student to learn something, such as a consequence of visiting the Holocaust museum for making anti-Semitic comments, and at other times, when a student was not ready to grow or learn, he or she was assigned a more traditional consequence, such as a suspension. Usually, students chose the consequence that forced them to grow, and more often than not, they did grow – a great deal.

When we teach young people that they are responsible for the harm that they cause, and we address harm in schools, whether that harm is in words or actions, we set the stage for young people to become responsible users of the freedoms they have been guaranteed, and we ensure that those freedoms remain for all of us.

On a larger stage, this is the responsibility of our political leaders to hold us to these standards, as a nation.

It is hateful and harmful for a large group of people to use their freedoms of speech and assembly to threaten the elimination of entire groups of people, which is what the white supremacist groups in Virginia have been advocating. It is the president’s job to denounce these messages, and it is the community’s responsibility to hold those who continue to choose to harm others responsible for their actions, whether that means removing them from their jobs or not supporting their businesses.

You cannot have these freedoms without also having consequences for when they are used to do harm, and denouncing hate speech as harmful will go a long way in teaching young people that these are lifelong responsibilities.

Schools have been tasked with the responsibility to prepare young people for responsible citizenry, and it is our nation’s responsibility to ensure that we treat each other with dignity with regards to those freedoms. We can start by teaching young people in schools that freedom of speech does not give them the right to cause harm, and that when harm happens, there are consequences, and we can follow that by calling out hate when we see it. We can add to our national freedoms the principle of “do no harm” to guide our actions and consequences. Perhaps this is the first step towards building compassionate regard for others, and perhaps, in the end it can lead to a better, kinder nation.


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