Reading, writing, and ... war?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

At Hollywood High School - perhaps the most celebrity-packed campus in the country - it takes a lot for an educator to attract attention. But literature teacher Hildreth Simmons still manages to raise eyebrows, not so much with words as with her wardrobe.

Just about every day, Ms. Simmons shows up in her southern California classroom wearing a T-shirt with a provocative message like "War Without End? Not in Our Name" or "A Woman's Place Is in Her Union."

Her goal, she says, is to get students to ponder issues like labor rights, world affairs or, nowadays, the war in Iraq. "I am trying to provoke thought, and discussion," says Simmons. "I'd like them to think."

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Simmons and her T-shirts have stayed out of trouble, but some of her colleagues haven't been so fortunate. Across the country, debates about the role of the war in the classroom have pitted outspoken teachers against parents, administrators, and, potentially, the courts. At issue: What rights do teachers give up when they report to work?

"There's got to be some First Amendment protection and academic freedom for teachers," says Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the nonpartisan First Amendment Center. "The question is how much."

The first dust-ups over the war and teachers came in early 2003. As the nation prepared to enter combat, teachers complained they weren't welcome to express their opinions through buttons, pins, and posters. In the Chicago suburb of Evanston, according to one news report, a high school actually banned teachers from wearing war-related buttons.

The role of educators came under the spotlight again in May when high school teachers in several states - including Texas, California and Alabama - came under fire for allowing students to watch the full video of the decapitation of Nicholas Berg, an American visitor to Iraq.

Those teachers appear to have attracted little support from their colleagues and legal precedent suggests they would find little support in the courts.

Although judges have expanded the concept of "academic freedom" beyond college professors to schoolteachers, they didn't transfer it whole. Educators don't have much leeway to present material deemed to be inappropriate for the maturity level of students, nor can they ignore the required curriculum or discuss irrelevant topics.

But school districts aren't all-powerful. In 1969, the US Supreme Court weighed in on campus free-speech rights in a famous case involving three Iowa students who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. While the case is often cited as providing protections for schoolchildren, it did the same for teachers. The court said "it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

So what are the right times and places for political discussions on campus? Policies differ from district to district, depending on interpretations of the law, legal challenges, and labor contracts. (Because they aren't funded with public dollars, private schools can set greater restrictions on employees.)

While buttons were banned in Evanston, Ill., the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the school district in Albuquerque last year after three teachers and a counselor were suspended for posting antiwar materials at area high schools; one put a sign in her classroom window saying "No War Against Iraq." The four educators got paid for their time off.

"Teachers are asked to show students what the lay of the land is regarding a controversial topic like that with regard to different sorts of opinions and attitudes," says Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU's New Mexico chapter. "Their responsibilities as teachers shouldn't preclude them from being able to locate themselves on that map, to show students where their own personal opinions lie."

On a different front, the Milwaukee teachers' union just accepted a new district policy forbidding teachers from wearing political buttons in the classroom, although they can continue to wear them in the teachers' lounge. The policy, however, appears to allow war-related buttons, says union attorney Richard Saks.

Some teachers don't think their colleagues should express opinions in front of students if their comments veer toward proselytizing.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, says the classroom shouldn't be a "pulpit," according to assistant general counsel Michael Simpson. New York social science teacher Gloria Sesso agrees and goes even further, saying educators should keep their personal perspectives private.

"You're helping kids to think for themselves," says Ms. Sesso, who teaches at Patchogue-Medford High School in Medford, N.Y. "You provide them with various perspectives, and you look at things you want them to analyze."

World history classes at the school have used the Iraq prison-abuse scandal to examine the role of torture in wartime, she says. In her advanced history class, students looked at the Iraq war through the prism of previous wars and military concepts like preemptive strikes. "The kids are very interested. They like to look at American foreign policy with a perspective," Sesso says. "They get excited about that."

Those same students will probably grow up to read about more disputes over the rights of teachers. As schools remain diverse, the arguments over who's in charge won't go away, says Richard Vacca, a former schoolteacher and senior fellow at the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute in Richmond, Va.

"The schoolhouse has always been a place where we get our future productive and moral citizens," he says. "This is our baby."

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