GNB Voc-Tech: Trump Remote Learning Background Is OK
An 11th-grade vocational school student may keep displaying a Trump banner as his background while participating in remote learning, the school's leader has ruled.
James L. O'Brien, superintendent of Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School, told WBSM on Thursday that the display of a candidate’s sign in a student’s home that can be seen by others in a virtual learning environment "in and of itself does not violate any student conduct policy."
WBSM sent a query to O'Brien after learning that a separate student at the school had objected to a classmate's political display on the grounds that it violated a rule in the student handbook. The rule states that "the use of school computers or other school equipment for political campaigns is strictly prohibited."
WBSM News viewed a screenshot that showed two banners. One read "Trump - Make America Great Again." The other flag showed a human skull with guns crossed behind its teeth. The black and white flag reads "2nd Amendment, 1789, America's Original Homeland Security."
O'Brien in his written rationale did not address the issue of whether the male student was using "school computers or other school equipment for political campaigns." He also did not address if the flags were in the service of a "political campaign." He instead likened the display to a student wearing a t-shirt or a button with a political message while attending class in person or walking the school's hallways.
“By their very definition, schools are a place for learning, a diversity of ideas and for the fostering of dialog among well-intentioned people, whether or not they agree or have the same positions," O'Brien told WBSM in an email. "When it comes to politics, students like everyone else in the community, have differing opinions about the candidates they support on the local, state and federal level, and no opinion is more valid than another."
O'Brien said administrators take seriously the rights of all students to an education in a safe and secure atmosphere.
"However, the display of a candidate’s name on a t-shirt or a campaign button worn by a student in school to be seen by hundreds of people in classrooms or walking the halls, or on a car bumper sticker in our parking lot would not violate any of our policies on student conduct," he wrote. "Likewise, the display of a candidate’s sign in a student’s home that can be seen by others in a virtual learning environment in and of itself does not violate any student conduct policy."
O'Brien added that an "offended student" has been offered support services by Dr. Heather Larkin, the school's guidance director. O'Brien said it is Larkin's role to offer support services, and it is his responsibility to interpret and enforce the student code of conduct.
He continued by encouraging students to work for political candidates.
"Students may feel strongly about the political process and the candidates running for office," he concluded in his email to WBSM, "and we encourage them to participate in this important civic responsibility by volunteering for the candidate of their choice and working to ensure the outcome they desire.”
O'Brien did not respond to a follow-up email asking if he had consulted with counsel before issuing his decision prior to the publication of this story. O'Brien called WBSM News after publication to say he did in fact consult with counsel for the school district. WBSM News has requested a copy of that legal opinion.
The "offended student" referenced by O'Brien told WBSM News that they were not "offended," but wanted administrators to enforce rules in the student handbook. The student also rejected a meeting with Larkin, so it's not clear if "support services" were rendered.
The 16-year-old junior wrote a follow-up email to the guidance director after being told that no action would be taken to have the other student remove his background flags as displayed on Google Meet during Algebra II.
"While deciding whether to meet with you or not, I looked to the GNBVT student handbook to see if there were any direct rules that prohibited politics to be promoted in the school environment," the student's Sept. 30 email to Larkin reads. "I discovered that, on page 67 of the student handbook, under subsection "Fundraising, Commerical, and Political Activities," there is in fact a statement that would prohibit the promotion of the Trump administration's campaign."
The handbook states that "the use of school computers or other school equipment for political campaigns is strictly prohibited," the student informed Larkin.
"This alone should be reason enough (as it is in the handbook) for the flag to be taken down. While he may not be using a school Chromebook, he is still on the school's email, network, and Google Classrooms/Webex. As such, there is no need for a meeting."
The student said that they are not personally acquainted with the student who is displaying the banners and that it is not personal.
Asked if other students at the school have displayed left-leaning political statements – such as support for Black Lives Matter or Democratic candidates for office – the student said they have seen no evidence of that.
"This is the only political expression I've seen during remote learning," the student said.
When WBSM asked for the student's own political views, the student suggested that the question isn't relevant. "I'm 16," the student said. "I can't vote."
The student's mother on Thursday sent an email to O'Brien "triple-checking" that all school administrators agree that the banners constitute "acceptable classroom background."
"Thank you for your input and I assure you that Mr. Watt, Mr. Watson, the Administrative Team and myself continue to move this school forward in these uncertain with the best interest of all students being in the forefront of all our decisions. Stay well and be safe," O'Brien wrote in response.
Robert Watt is the Career Vocational Technical Education principal and Michael Watson is the school's academic principal. O'Brien did not specifically describe Watt and Watson's position on the matter.
The student's mother said she is bringing the matter to the attention of the eight-member school committee. The regional school committee contains representatives from the district's three sending communities – Dartmouth, Fairhaven, and New Bedford.
It's not clear if other students have complained about the Trump and Second Amendment flags. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 found that public schools can justify limits on students’ First Amendment rights to the extent necessary to maintain an effective learning environment. The Tinker case established a "substantial disruption" standard that is still in use today.
In another landmark Massachusetts case, in 1996 a student at South Hadley High School won a protracted legal battle in his fight to wear a "Co-Ed Naked Band" t-shirt to school.
O'Brien is retiring at the end of the school year and a search is underway for his replacement. A posting on the Massachusets Association of School Committees' job board describes a position open to internal candidates.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story stated the reporting student had learned of the school's decision through Dr. Larkin, but further clarification indicates Larkin had sought to meet with the student to clarify the rule in the handbook.