The First Amendment and Our Students

The First Amendment and Our Students
Posted on 06/02/2020

Good evening!

For the first time in several months, coronavirus is not the topic I want to talk with you about this evening. The death of a black man in police custody in Minnesota, as well as several other recent incidents, have unleashed tremendous pain, anguish, and calls for increased justice and equity in our society. Our students are on the front lines of history as they witness these events and participate as active citizens in our democracy. Working together with you, it's our purpose to get them ready as young adults who make values-based decisions that more often than not transcend their own self-interests. They care deeply about our community, our country and our world.

While many of us prayed for the victim’s family, some Quakertown Community High School students and graduates decided to advocate through lawful protest. They developed a flyer that was centered by a peace symbol and clearly stated in big bold letters at the top “PEACEFUL PROTEST.” The flyer also included these bulleted points:

  • Respect Businesses + Others
  • Masks Required
  • Bring Sunscreen + Water
  • Do Not Block Traffic

The message was posted on social media, and inspired so many! As educators, parents, and Americans we could not be more proud and applaud these students for their initiative in exercising their First Amendment right to assembly and peaceful protest. Scores of students and recent graduates were prepared and planning to attend today’s Peaceful Protest. An identical peaceful protest was held yesterday by young people in Doylestown. But, events did not unfold the way our student leaders expected, nor what we aspire to for Quakertown.

Unfortunately, some voices of ignorance, hatred, and racism responded to our students’ message with death threats, and a call to line our downtown street with people holding firearms. Another former Quakertown community member published the list of all the names of people who “liked” the social media message, with the intent to intimidate. Though a small protest did take place this afternoon, for fear of their children’s safety from the racists’ messaging, parents kept their children home, while law enforcement officials discouraged the protest. Many of you have read these vicious posts and condemned them. Thank you!

Let us be clear, the Quakertown Community School Board and Administration support the rights of our students to peacefully protest. Our teachers do a wonderful job ensuring that by the time they graduate our students understand the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. We know that from the incredibly high scores on the PA mandated civic exams and their subsequent success in high school government classes. Our local police, like they did during the student protest after Parkland two years ago, are prepared to serve and protect so our children can exercise their First Amendment rights and have their voices heard. Our Quakertown Police were there today and will be there for the next protest on Saturday.

The district invests both time and resources to combat racism. If you recall, three years ago, following an incident in which some of our students yelled racial epithets at an opposing team’s cheerleaders following a football game at Alumni Field, the district, supported by the School Board, took strong action. The Board hired the Peace Center to teach its curriculum of diversity and acceptance to all QCSD fourth graders. Peace Center programs are designed to reduce violence and conflict through a multicultural, community-based approach. We contracted Pearl S. Buck International for its Welcome Workplace program to sustain a welcoming school district while identifying and managing issues of discrimination. Last year, in an effort to facilitate ongoing dialogue and understanding, the high school, at Officer Lee’s suggestion, premiered “Walking While Black”, a dialogue between law enforcement and the African American community.

Through these experiences, we will continue to learn, continue to be better, and continue to make meaningful and necessary changes towards a better and more collaborative society with justice for all. Through role modeling by you at home, and by educators and support staff at school, by the time our seniors graduate, they are better prepared to engage others in the multi-cultural multi-ethnic world in which we live. While we no doubt have made progress, there is also no doubt that racism still exists in our schools. Our children and their families tell us so. There is still much work to do.

We look forward to working with you as the primary educators of your children. Let’s use today and Saturday, when another peaceful protest is planned, as teachable moments for our children! Please share with your children the importance of our community values of justice, respect, love, compassion, and tolerance. Or, perhaps, it is our children who are teaching us.

Thank you for reading.

Bill Harner
[email protected]

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