Natalie’s fight against censorship

This one’s been sitting in the draft folder for a while, and I wanted to get it out there before it got too stale.

This one’s based on a first hand account. The blog, appropriately enough, is entitled “Where are we going & why are we in this handbasket.” It’s a bit too long for a domain name, so the blogger, Natalie Munroe, simply titles it under her real name.

As chronicled in the entry “Bloggate- Day 1: The Scandal Begins”, Natalie describes what she thought would be a typical day at work as a teacher. It wound up being anything but typical, as she would be suspended from her job and escorted off the premises well before lunchtime.

And it’s all about some blog posts which the parents of students at Natalie’s school. To her credit, Natalie did try to maintain some anonymity, as she states:

When I wrote, I kept things as anonymous as possible; I know there are crazies out there and I didn’t want anyone trying to track me down. I blogged as “Natalie M” and had no location information or email address or anything listed or accessible. Nor did I ever mention where I worked or the names of students. Yet, there’s this perception that I was trying to lambaste everyone in the school without heed. That’s bollocks.

These are reasonable precautions in unreasonable times. I should note that Natalie’s blog used to be at a address which did not contain her last name. She goes on to state, in detail, just how big the injustice is:

What bothers me so much about this situation is that what I wrote is being taken out of context. Of my 84 blogs, 60 of them had absolutely nothing to do with school or work. Of the 24 that mentioned it, only some of them were actually focused on it–others may have mentioned it in passing, like if I was listing things that annoyed me that day and wrote without any elaboration that students were annoying that day.

Natalie goes on to name specific instances of parts of her post being taken out of context, and selectively misinterpreted. All in the name of censorship, of kicking a suspended teacher when she’s down, of “train wreck” news coverage. Over a few blog posts, probably numbering in the single digits. Some of which were clearly intended as humor!

I can understand why Natalie took down all of her previous blog posts (some of which are still archived elsewhere). It’s still irritating to me that someone can, in effect, censor an entire blog with an attack on one’s livelihood that is probably unwarranted.

All because Natalie exercised her First Amendment rights, and some parents didn’t like it.

The article which came out right after Natalie’s suspension contains a quote from Natalie that really hits home for me (edited for brevity, emphasis added):

I love to write, […] I need to write. That’s what I do. I don’t think that, as a teacher, with or without the scandal surrounding, I should not be allowed to do something that everybody else is allowed to do.

I concur. It is wrong to deny almost anyone the right to blog unless it directly jeopardizes one’s job. I can see, for example, not allowing undercover CIA operatives to blog from the middle of a foreign country (though, I will admit, it’s possible a blog can be part of their cover). Leaking trade secrets or information which could directly jeopardize one’s employer’s operations is obviously out of bounds.

But based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think Natalie did anything to justify being suspended from her job.

And earlier in the story, Natalie’s attorney had plenty to say as well.

Steve Rovner, Munroe’s attorney, said the school district has “no basis for firing her.”

“The school district has its power and authority and protections through the law. […] They can’t hire and fire anyone at will,” he said.

“They do not have an Internet policy. They specifically do not have a no-blogging policy. She did not do anything wrong that would give them cause to fire her.”

And he goes on to say that other teachers have censored their blogs as well in the wake of this. The chilling effect is obvious, and given the already pathetic pay rate of teachers across the board in this country, one would hope we as a society have better things to do than discourage teachers from blogging.

Indeed, from earlier in the story, comes this quote:

The posts people are talking about the most are more than a year old. Munroe said: “I really think that somebody dug it up on purpose to raise trouble. And now it has.”

I’d like to know what parent has this kind of time, to go digging up dirt on their child’s teachers like this. It just really burns me up that a disgruntled parent (or possibly even a disgruntled student) would target a teacher like this to begin with.

I wish Natalie the best and hope this is resolved in a favorable manner to her.

The story of Katie and the Star Wars water bottle

Maybe you’ve already seen it by now. recently ran a story about Katie Goldman, a first-grader (7 years old) who likes Star Wars and who was teased at school for it. It wouldn’t be a newsworthy story, except for the curiosity of her mother, Carrie Goldman, who asked Katie about it until she finally got an answer. Carrie’s post on her blog entitled Portrait of an Adoption tells more of the story. I quote in part:

[A] week ago, as we were packing her lunch, Katie said, “My Star Wars water bottle is too small.  It doesn’t hold enough water.  Can I take a different one?”  She searched through the cupboard until she found a pink water bottle and said, “I’ll bring this.”

I was perplexed.  “Katie, that water bottle is no bigger than your Star Wars one.  I think it is actually smaller.”

“It’s fine, I’ll just take it,” she insisted.

I kept pushing the issue, because it didn’t make sense to me.  Suddenly, Katie burst into tears.

She wailed, “The first grade boys are teasing me at lunch because I have a Star Wars water bottle.  They say it’s only for boys.  Every day they make fun of me for drinking out of it.  I want them to stop, so I’ll just bring a pink water bottle.”

Is this how it starts?  Do kids find someone who does something differently and start to beat it out of her, first with words and sneers?  Must my daughter conform to be accepted?

Carrie closes her blog post with a call to action for other female Star Wars fans, and a reminder that it works the other way too (of course, it’s much easier to see boys getting teased for the pink water bottle). The CNN story goes on to mention Jen Yates’s entry to her blog, a comment from Catherine Taber who voiced Padme Amidala in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and the school’s first Proud To Be Me Day, to be held tomorrow (December 10).

My reaction to the story is multi-faceted, since it touches on a lot of things I have a strong opinion of. But first, a bit of background.

I was quite into Star Wars when I was a kid; the original theatrical releases of the first three movies (which are actually Episodes 4 through 6 in the sequence). I endured my share of teasing and bullying growing up. Even though I was at a private school through my elementary school years, little was done about it. (Remember, this was the early 1980s; if there were any communities they were bulletin boards on dialup modems, and the Internet was still primarily for research and would not open up to the public for a few more years. There were no websites or mommy blogs as we know them today.)

My ordeal with bullying and teasing eased up some after I transferred to a public school and moved in with my mom between my fifth and sixth grade years. It was still difficult to deal with some kids who just didn’t want to accept me for who I was. It was hard for me to make and keep friendships, a problem that has followed me well into adulthood.

First, Star Wars. Having grown up with Star Wars, it was a shock to me that anyone, any age, would ridicule another for showing off their support of George Lucas’s best known work. My interest in science fiction in general is not what it once was, but were George Lucas to change his mind and make Episodes 7 through 9, I’d probably still make sure I saw them in the theater during their original theatrical run, just to say I did. (Which, unfortunately, I cannot say for Episodes 1 through 3, which I only saw on DVD.)

Second, the (perceived) gender stereotypes upon which Katie’s bullying was based. Somehow and somewhere, these first-grade boys got it stuck in their heads that Star Wars is only for boys. These same boys probably also have it stuck in their heads that pink water bottles are for girls, and would undoubtedly ridicule a boy who had one the same way they ridiculed Katie. (It would not surprise me at all if Katie knew this and went straight for the pink water bottle thinking “the boys will never tease me for drinking out of this one.”) This disturbs me greatly. I’ve never been the most “macho” boy of the group; whether or not this was the root cause of some of the bullying I endured is up for debate. Either way, I honestly think it is not good for our generation to have such strong gender-based stereotypes at the tender young age of seven (there’s plenty of time for them to learn that, particularly post-puberty), and I think it would behoove us as a society to figure out where our kids are learning these things.

(Sidenote: I recall one instance of bullying against me where I was criticized for wearing my pants “low like a (female dog).” So I pulled them up as high as I could for the next few days. I was later criticized for wearing them “high like a (female dog)” which, unfortunately, was not far what I expected; my response was “Which is it? Because you just said ‘low like a (female dog)’ a few days before.” That shut them up for a while.)

Third, bullying in general, particularly among elementary school kids. We know school bullying has gotten more publicity in recent years. I’m not sure if it’s just that we know more about it now that the Internet has brought us all closer together (meaning that the bullying problem was this bad all along, we just didn’t know), or if the problem is a new one that happens to coincide with the Internet era. Either way, Katie’s story is a call to action. The kids that are in school today need to be taught in no uncertain terms that bullying is not okay.

Fourth, individuality (and some of this goes back to gender stereotypes as well). Everyone is different; no two people are exactly the same. The sooner in life people learn this, the better the world will be. It’s okay to be different, in the minority, to be the one girl in the class that likes Star Wars and playing football, to be the one boy in the class that likes pink water bottles and playing with dolls. While some professions are dominated by one gender over another (when I was in elementary school most of the boys thought it was odd that a boy wanted to be a teacher when he grew up), almost every career has at least some of both. It goes the same for a lot of things, including medical conditions. Not everyone is born or grows up in perfect health; I was underweight through a good portion of my childhood (you would never know this looking at me today).

Fifth and finally, the spectacular (if not first-rate) parenting skills of Carrie Goldman, without which this entire story as it happened would not have been possible, and also without which the result could have been disastrous at some point in the future. I wish there were more moms (and dads) like her out there, with strong and finely tuned instincts (would I be that wrong to refer to such instincts as “The Force?”), that know there’s more to the story than the water bottle is too small. This is an example of parenting every mom (and dad) can learn from.

In closing: To Katie, Carrie, and young bullying victims and their parents everywhere, may the Force be with you. Remember that you’re not alone.

A new twist on “school-owned”

A recent Computerworld story reveals a shocking violation of student privacy from a Pennsylvania school district.

The Lower Merion School District of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, provided laptops to its students, complete with webcams. This by itself is not an issue. What is an issue is that the school district had the ability to remotely activate the webcam and see whatever was in front of it, without the students’ or parents’ consent or knowledge.

From the article:

Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., said they first found out about the alleged spying last November after their son Blake was accused by a Harriton High School official of “improper behavior in his home” and shown a photograph taken by his laptop.

An assistant principal at Harriton later confirmed that the district could remotely activate the Webcam in students’ laptops. “Michael Robbins thereafter verified, through [Assistant Principal] Ms. Matsko, that the school district in fact has the ability to remotely activate the Webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the Webcam, all without the knowledge, permission or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer,” the lawsuit stated.

What could they possibly have been thinking?

While at school or at school-sponsored activities, discipline is the school’s responsibility. Cameras in schools and on school buses are fine. However, it is really not the school’s realm to discipline outside of school hours and school functions, and usually what goes on at home is none of school officials’ business. (I say “usually” because adults have the legal responsibility to report suspected child abuse and things of that nature.)

Shame on the snoops at Harriton High. And kids, don’t assume anything about that shiny laptop the school gave you; if it’s the school’s computer, there’s the ever-present possibility it can do anything the school wants, including rat you out at home. Just ask Blake.