Skip to comments.Teach vs. speech
Posted on 03/03/2006 10:55:28 PM PST by neverdem
How should public schools handle hot controversy in class? A teacher's comments on Bush stoke an ever-simmering debate
The investigation of an Overland High School teacher's discussion and critique of President Bush triggered a walkout Thursday of about 150 students and raised concerns among teachers that classroom discussions could be stifled.
Jay Bennish, the social studies teacher whose comments during a world geography class were recorded by a student, told school officials he had received several threats. He was placed on administrative leave Wednesday while Cherry Creek School District officials investigate, according to district spokeswoman Tustin Amole. The investigation is expected to continue into next week, Amole said.
Bennish's attorney, David Lane, said the district told his client that he was not permitted to talk to the news media.
The teacher, he said, is simply trying to get students to "think critically ... don't just follow hook, line and sinker everything everybody tells you."
Lane, who also represented embattled University of Colorado at Boulder professor Ward Churchill, said he plans to file papers in federal court today to protect Bennish's First Amendment rights.
He said Bennish is not doing well and that the student took what occurred out of context. "This is very upsetting to him," Lane said.
Bennish's comments in class the day after Bush's Jan. 31 State of the Union address have generated national attention and prompted a discussion of what's appropriate in the classroom.
In fact, teachers in public schools have much less freedom to express their opinions than do university teachers, according to Alan Canner, an education law professor at the University of Colorado School of Law.
Teachers in grades K-12 "do enjoy, as do all state employees, quite an extent of freedom under the First Amendment to express ideas when they are not in the classroom," Canner said.
But in the classroom, the rules change.
"The in-school speech context is extremely different," he said.
A federal appeals court concluded in a 1991 case that schoolteachers do not have a constitutional right to academic freedom, Canner said.
Because teachers are viewed as agents of their school districts, he said, district officials have discretion to decide how far teachers can go in teaching about controversial topics.
"School districts, when we're talking about the speech of employees, have a tremendous amount of authority to delineate what the curriculum is," he said.
Districts must ensure that students aren't intimidated, he said. It's important that the students feel that the ideas they bring to school are not undercut in school, he said.
Some teachers worried about what they could say in class.
Stan Jozwiak, a social studies teacher at Boulder's Fairview High School, said he has had to "pull back" on his opinions of President Bush to create "sustained, nonconfrontational, nonbiased" discussions.
Still, he said, students have expressed concerns about some political conversations in the past.
In Jefferson County Public Schools, the state's largest district, Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said teachers who plan to present controversial material that could create "social tension" must first get principals' approval. The rule does not forbid spontaneous discussions in which teachers act as moderators.
"Part of the art of teaching is making sure that ideas can flow, that kids can disagree ... but that the adults understand that they have a great deal of influence," Stevenson said.
Cherry Creek's policy states that teachers have "the right and the obligation to teach about controversial issues." However, the teacher also "has the obligation to be as objective as possible and to present fairly the several sides of an issue ... he does not have the right to indoctrinate students to his views."
One student said he had felt intimidated in Bennish's class.
Outside the Aurora high school Thursday morning, 17-year-old Miles Merritt watched as classmates chanted "Freedom of speech. Let him teach." About 150 students joined the protest.
Merritt, a junior, said that when he was enrolled in Bennish's human geography class last fall, "it turned into a very political class" with Bennish criticizing Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina.
"I really wanted to talk back, but I was afraid," Merritt said.
Merritt said he doesn't think all high school students are mature enough to form their own opinions when teachers express "such strong views."
"We're young. We follow the crowd," he said. "That's what we do."
Other students vigorously defended Bennish as a teacher who liked to provoke thought and open discussion.
"He's just trying to make your mind grow," said Chelsey Wallington, a 16-year-old sophomore who took Bennish's honors geography class last fall.
In the 20-minute recording by 16-year-old Sean Allen, Bennish described capitalism as a system "at odds with human rights." He also said there were "eerie similarities" between Bush's comments and "things that Adolf Hitler used to say."
On the tape, Bennish touched on various issues, from American involvement in Colombia's civil war to U.S. attacks on Cuba during the 1960s.
Near the end, he told students, "You have to figure this stuff out for yourselves. ... I'm not in any way implying that you should agree with me. ... What I'm trying to get you to do is think about these issues more in depth and not just to take things from the surface."
He also commended students who challenged him, saying, "I'm glad you asked all of your questions because they're all very good, legitimate questions."
Sean said Thursday that he was surprised so many students supported Bennish. He said he would not be in class today and was considering not returning to Overland.
"I feel like I did the right thing and I don't regret it, but I mean I feel like that that may have to be the consequence of the situation," he said.
Staff writer Karen Rouse can be reached at 303-820-1684 or email@example.com.
"Some teachers worried about what they could say in class."
Oh bull. Just don't abuse your teaching authority to proslytize your politics, thats all. Anyone who can't lead a discussion without taking sides [or cheap shots] shouldn't be teaching to begin with.
Wasn't this one of the guys who starred in the "Revenge of the Nerds" movies?
THAT IS A PICTURE OF A GIRL?????
why am I not surprised that someone who is Pro-Bennish, looks like that....
ah the little junior level lefty (in the pic) has learned well from her overlords
Grow a pair, Bennish. If you intend to dish it out by comparing people to Hitler, you had better be prepared to take some return fire.
THAT IS A PICTURE OF A GIRL?????
Anyone care to comment on the close cropped dyke cut and the red nose of the student in the picture?
As for the teachers like this one: "Stan Jozwiak, a social studies teacher at Boulder's Fairview High School, said he has had to "pull back" on his opinions of President Bush to create "sustained, nonconfrontational, nonbiased" discussions.
And the attorney for the 'teacher'is also a piece of work: "Bennish is not doing well and that the student took what occurred out of context. "This is very upsetting to him," Lane said.
Poor ickle socialists.
The people have a right to know. That teacher has a right to his opinions but his kook antiamerican ideals have no place in the classroom. I've long thought that the left only survives because they prey on children and the mentally and emotionally venerable hidden from public scrutiny. The light of truth is a harsh one but a professor, who believes so strongly, should be proud to have his lectures recorded and disseminated so widely. I also think it is admirable that parents should be more involved in their children's education at least that is the word at the local PTAs and candy fundraisers.
ABSOLUTELY!- No adam's apple.
I am all for teachers having the freedom to say what they want in the classroom.
Of course, I am also a strong believer that public schools should not be a government-supported monopoly, and parents should be able to opt out of government schools, and the money should flow to competitive, non-government schools!!
After a few years, the inability of "government school" graduates to compete with private school graduates might force them to actually start teaching relevant things!!
Parents need to opt into the schools. Walk in the door and sit down for awhile. My wife is a teacher and she always requests that the parents of her students not only come into the classroom but also volunteer on a regular basis.
If you want to know what is going on get your tail end into the schools and find out.
So he wants to broaden thier minds, and make them think for themselves and says "... What I'm trying to get you to do is think about these issues more in depth and not just to take things from the surface."
If this is true, then why is it he can only voice one side of the argument? The Anti-American one.
My answer: Becuase this is absolutley NOT true. He is only out to indoctrinate, not to teach.
If he was intending to teach, even as controversial a topic as this, why didn't he make arguments in FAVOR of our country and our policies, along side his diatribe against. Why doesn't he have the students look up the truth for themselves, taking both pro and con stances in gradable reports? Maybe even assign it that way so no one feels like they "have to please" the teacher.
People like this have no balance, thus, no ideas.
I had a final question in college that went something like this... Describe in detail how the disappearance of the American Buffalo affected the 1960 Presidential Election. I answered that there was no relationship what so ever and got an "F". Well anyone that hasn't written a text book for a major state university could tell you that there is no corellation, but that doesn't matter in the least.
I'll take a shot at the schnoz.
How about cellulitis, irritant dermatitis secondary to illegal or erotic endeavors or incipient rhinophyma. Could a full thickness punch biopsy facilitate making the diagnosis and the wearing of jewelry? A referral to a dermatologist might help.
My view on various public school issues never change. My message stays the same.
This is what you get when you send your child to public school.
I realize it's very tough to work around. I acknowledge the harsh realities and decisions of what to do with your child and school.
But it doesn't change my view. Public schools can do any damn thing they want. It's really up to the parents to accept or reject it. There's always an alternative.
Grow up. Since when did looks suddenly define politics? That's giving the left every license to define us as fat, banjo playing, gun owning freaks. ...which of course I am. ....but that's besides the point.
Argue content, not the image.
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