Last week, my daughter’s high school hosted a “Club Fair” at lunch so students could see a display of all the school’s clubs and decide which ones to join. The Diva saw a Young Republicans Club, so BECAUSE BOOM, SHE’S MY KID, she looked around for a Young Democrats club. There wasn’t one.
She came home and told me, and I was all, for the love of Harry S. Truman, how typical of a high school located in this corner of St. Johns County, Florida, where the average household income tops $153,000 and diversity means who drinks gin versus who sticks to wine. I fear my vote will be lost like a small diamond stud from the ear of a rich old lady’s ear. Irritating.
But then I heard the real story. And I don’t care who you support in this election, you should be pissed.
Anna Elizabeth is a tall, graceful girl with an easy smile and a quiet demeanor. She’s steadfast in her beliefs, and she’s one of those rare teens who does her research. As she has grown into young adulthood, she’s found herself leaning to the left, and this past summer, as she neared the start of 10th grade, she decided to start a local branch of the Young Democrats of America at her school. She spent a lot of time investigating other clubs around the country so she’d have some ideas of projects her new group could tackle. She made an Instagram account for it. She was excited.
The week before Club Fair, she made posters advertising the club, which she refers to as YDA, to let people know about it, and next day, she hung a couple of them up. The posters did not advertise political views or mention presidential politics. Fifteen minutes later, as she happened to pass by, she saw that a Trump sticker covered her poster. “That sucks,” she thought, and she peeled it off. She went to her second class. When she returned, the Trump sticker was back. Discouraged, she again peeled it off. It happened a third time. She posted on Instagram: So its been 15min since I put this poster up and I had to remove two trump stickers….#letsbecivil
The first few comments were all by the same kid: #trump2k16, #hillaryforprison, #raisedright, and #raisedrepublican.
Then this: Hillary fuckin sucks. The next: When u think made progress by removing 2 trump stickers #hillaryforprison
And this alarming escalation: #hillaryiscorrupt #hillarywontlivetoseetrumpbepresident
They also barraged her with comments like #trump2k16, #raisedright, and #trumpforprez. The comments all came from kids at Anna’s school. They were – are – clearly identified by name and by picture.
As the comments kept coming, Anna began taking screen shots of them, then deleting them. The main instigator, the boy who had started the comments, wrote: K just delete them and don’t confront me. Someone wrote: Show yourself! and Who are you? At this point, Anna had not identified herself by name – all the kids knew was that someone was trying to start a young Democrats club. Some of the students had profile pictures showing them with guns.
The YDA Instagram account had been open to anyone who wanted to follow it, so Anna made it private and monitored which followers she approved. Some she approved because she thought they were interested, but they started commenting trash, so she deleted them. She became even more selective, and was inundated by direct messages demanding that she “show herself” and reveal her identity. She didn’t respond. The haters then started a new Instagram account under an “antiYDA” profile name and continued their violent diatribes against Hillary Clinton and anyone who supports her. Many of the comments were accompanied by American flag and gun emojis.
Her parents had become alarmed. On Club Fair Day, they kept her home from school, fearing for her safety. They could not, they said, allow her to stand at the YDA table and be exposed to the kids who had posted such vile attacks. They called the dean, who expressed concern and said he would handle the situation. He apparently spoke to several of the boys, because soon the anti-DYA account was deleted and a new one created. The new one was simply labeled “antidcrat.” The first post: I can’t get in trouble for expressing my right free speech bud.
Sunday night, Anna’s mother emailed a letter to all of her teachers asking them to watch out for Anna during the day. “These boys may be all bark and no bite,” she wrote. “But, at this point, I don’t know what to expect. Frankly, I don’t want to send her to school. I don’t know what to do. I am saddened and sickened to my core.” Just that evening, she said, her daughter had received notice of a boy who said he was “obsessed with finding her.” He said he wants to “debate her” and bragged that he “makes people cry” when he debates.
Tuesday, they received an email from the school’s vice-principal, who said he was sorry Anna didn’t want to continue with the club. He and the club’s faculty sponsors suggested “the idea of creating a single club for all political affiliations which might provide an open forum for discussion on issues germane to the upcoming election. I am sure that they will communicate this concept to club members in the near future. It could allow for individual identity among parties and, at the same time, create a respectful environment in which to conduct a reasonable and professional conversation about those issues facing our nation. This is the direction that we feel will bring a sense of solidarity among our students and provide for objective discourse.”
Anna’s mother is a sunny, respectful mother who doesn’t curse like I do. So let me be the one to say WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?
How can this be? How can an administration in a school with a strict anti-bullying policy look bullying – and criminal behavior – in the face and call it just another glitch in the day?
As a reminder, it is against the law to deface or destroy campaign materials. It is against the law to destroy public and private property. Should these boys decide to make a little mischief with campaign signs in their neighborhoods, they could be charged, arrested, and receive jail time. It is also – and I can’t believe I have to even write this – against the law to threaten a presidential candidate in any way. It’s a serious crime. People have found themselves hosting the FBI in their living rooms for less.
Is this how the high school wants to model public discourse? The purpose of these clubs, I assume, is to encourage teens to shape their opinions using facts, and to promote civil communication with people of differing opinions. If free speech matters at all, then it must be protected from those intent on quashing it. At a time when the nation is devolving into screaming and taunting, schools should continue to be bastions of civility – a place where faculty can allow kids to argue with tolerance and reason. It’s where the next generation can learn to work together.
No. Just no. A young woman who has the initiative to start an ideological club at her high school should not be threatened by her very own classmates. And if that happens, the perpetrators of those threats should not be let off with a lecture. These kids hijacked a school-sponsored organization, and used its platform to intimidate its leader. They used violent, hateful language when referencing a presidential candidate. Oh. Wait. They acted like Trump supporters. (I wonder where they learned such behavior?)
I’m not going to do a lot of pontificating here. The story sort of explains itself. These boys have learned that intimidation works. Anna has learned that the right of free speech sometimes depends on what’s being said. I have learned I must work harder to teach my children to stick up for their beliefs – because it’s not a lesson they’re learning in school.
Part of what’s wrong with the political system today is a chronic lack of understanding about how government works and who stands for what. Schools have become so obsessed with standardized tests that there’s no room for current events. Encouraging creation of an educated electorate should be celebrated and lauded, not punished and pounded until the momentum is dead, but that’s exactly what has happened here.
This should not be the end of this story. Help me ensure that it’s not. Teach your children to express their beliefs peacefully, respectfully, and with facts to support their beliefs rather than dangerous bluster. It’s not just the right thing to do. If you’re a parent or a teacher, it’s your job.
Here’s the letter I’m writing to the school principal, and forwarding to the county superintendent.
It is my understanding that your administration failed to effectively investigate the students who trolled and threatened a young woman trying to start a Young Democrats of America club at the high school. As a resident of St. Johns County, a parent with children in the public school system, and a taxpayer, I respectfully request that the young woman be assisted in creation of the club, and protected from anyone who intimidates her. In addition, I expect the boys involved to be subject to consequences appropriate for teenagers who have broken not only school rules, but the law.
I’m not sure this will change anything. But for the sake of our future, it better.