A high school fails its own civics lesson, and free speech takes a hit.

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.donkey

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.

Dear Principal,

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.

66 responses to A high school fails its own civics lesson, and free speech takes a hit.

  1. Write it. Send it. And then call the newspaper. And let them know you plan to contact the newspaper. This is unacceptable. Period. End. OK, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest:
    Third Way Alternative: Suggest sitting down with these folks, with Anna, her parents, and others, and creating a civics lesson from this. What can we learn from this? How can we all be better? Do you want me to come and do a writing circle with these students, to process this? I”ll do it. Just LMK.

    • tricia says:

      Jennifer, what a great idea. I’m going to forward it to all involved. Thanks.

  2. p.s. anonymity breeds hate. You cannot hate someone nearly as much when you know their story. That’s why I’d be happy to come and create a safe container for this discourse, where we all know each other by name, and we know our stories.

  3. Susanna barton says:

    Amen. #LetsBeCivil I am proud of this young woman and the civility and quiet strength she demonstrates in the face of hate. This could be such a teachable moment for all and sadly, it is not… Yet. Thanks for making it an issue

    • tricia says:

      We’ve got to keep pushing forward, right? #letsmakeadifference

  4. Matz says:

    I would also send a copy to law enforcement. That girl is being harassed, bullied, and the administration is doing nothing to protect her. These incidents have resulted in terrible outcomes and we, as a civil society, need to protect her from further harm. Words are powerful, but actions speak volumes.

    • tricia says:

      Absolutely. Words can be scary with no one standing behind you. Thanks.

  5. Catherine says:

    Whoa – scary. Thank you, Tricia, for publicizing this troubling matter!!! I hope it results in action on the school’s part!

    • tricia says:

      Me, too. Thanks for reading, and understanding the issues.

  6. Erika says:

    This greatly saddens and angers me! I have heard similar reports from my daughter after she voiced her opinion in a respectful manner at school & was met with less than respectful comments & behavior.

    • tricia says:

      I hope you can tell her to stand tall. These are teachable moments for all involved. Thanks for reading!

  7. Bonnie Scott Edwards says:

    Why can’t a police report be made now? By concerned citizens, not by Anna. These students should be in jail. It would be a good civics lesson.

    • tricia says:

      Good idea….I’m hoping they’ll get involved soon.

  8. Linda says:

    Thank you for sharing. As a parent of a student at the school involved, I am embarrassed and sickened that nothing more has been done to protect this woman and the rights of other students. This is bullying!

    • tricia says:

      Linda, thanks for understanding the importance of this issue. Let’s keep it in the forefront.

  9. Tania says:

    Doesn’t shock me to hear…this so so sad. We teach our kids to express themselves and this is what occurs?? So not acceptable. Please write and send the letter. I will be happy to support you if need be.

  10. Sharon Mathews says:

    This is so upsetting! My son, who is also a 10th grader, tells me daily about debates they’ve had on the bus, comments said during lunch, even flyers found on the bathroom floor bashing Obama with hateful words (He is anti-Trump, but unfortunately, not for HIllary yet. Reading too many conspiracy theories on instagram, I’m afraid) Keep pursuing action from the school! As a volunteer/ SJC parent, I would happily assist with the club if they need another adult sponsor.

    • tricia says:

      Thank you, Sharon, and thanks for encouraging your son to educate himself. I will keep you in the loop.

  11. sonja says:

    Consider having the school create a Junior State of America club. http://jsa.org/
    This organization has been around since 1934: “The idea for what is now known as the Junior State was first conceived by Professor E.A. Rogers, headmaster of the Montezuma Mountain School for Boys in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains in the early 1930s. Prof. Rogers had long maintained that one of the primary needs of a democracy was to train its youth in the essentials of good government. He believed that without an informed populace, a democracy is worthless.”

    During Reagan’s presidency, he cut civics funding for K-12 and it shows. http://www.newfoundations.com/Clabaugh/CuttingEdge/Reagan.html

    Nonprofits like JSA fill in the space left behind by his short-sightedness. Students deserve to understand their rights and responsibilities as INFORMED, citizens. They should then apply what they’ve learned by allowing free speech for all views and learn to understand the difference between hate speech and lively debate.

    • tricia says:

      This organization sounds awesome…I will definitely forward this idea. It certainly could make a difference. Thanks for reading, and understanding its importance.

  12. Lisa Kessler says:

    This is Lisa Kessler. I am absolutely horrified to hear this story. My daughter was a proud member of Young Dems when she attended PVHS 2009-2013. I couldn’t be more proud of the political stance she took despite the fact that she is the product of politically apathetic parents and surrounded by Republicans including her mother’s entire family. If we can help with this situation please let me know!

    • tricia says:

      Lisa, thanks for reminding us that we’re not too far removed from civility. We will keep you in the loop!

  13. Please tell the young lady at PVHS that a right-leaning owner of a local print shop would like to provide her with 50 white printed YDA T-shirts at no charge to help market her efforts to bring a different “voice” to the fore.
    Office@ Crowleyprinting.com

    • tricia says:

      Wow. Jamie, that is the most generous, humble, community-minded offer I’ve heard in quite some time. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will pass on the information.

  14. Advenger says:

    My friend’s daughter went through the same thing if not worse, just because her Dad had Trump stickers on his truck & he drove her to school going through car pool to drop & pick her up. Kids & even teachers (apparently Democratic) gave his daughter a bad time (I will not go into details here bc too much) at school bc of her Dad’s sticker (nothing to do with her). She begged him to take it off. But after watching the Democrats protest so violently against Trump at rallies & in the streets (stopping traffic, looting, hitting people for no reason, cussing) for all to see, including our kids! My friend’s daughter now is proud of her Dad’s refusal to take the sticker off bc of fear/bullying & she stands up to these kids/teachers. So, I guess some kids learn to bully from what the see irresponsible adults do & some learn to stand up to bully bc of what responsible adults do! Maybe grown-ups should set better examples! EVERYBODY in America, Democrat/Republican, no matter what race has the right to freedom of speech without harassment/bullying! But that’s not what we see on the news! Sad but all adults are the reason, kids mimick what they see/are taught.

    • tricia says:

      Advenger, I would agree that these boys probably learned their bullying ways from parents and other adults. But they can shift their tactics if they’re forced to be civil in order to communicate their views. Thanks for your perspective.

  15. Keith Kessler says:

    This is Keith Kessler. We would like to piggy-back off of Jamie’s generous offer and provide something else (whatever that might be) to help the club get going again. Maybe we could provide matching baseball hats for the club while supporting Jamie’s business as well…

    • tricia says:

      Keith, thank you so much. I know Anna would love to have your support as she pulls this club together. I will make sure she keeps you in the loop. And thanks for reading!!

  16. J Simpson says:

    I know a school board member in St. Johns county that would be fired up to hear about this!! Let me know if you want me to reach out to her.

    • tricia says:

      YES. By all means, send it along! Thanks for the offer, and thanks for reading.

  17. Kevin E. says:

    Tricia, as you know I love the words you put out into the world. On the surface this issue appears simple, but actually uncovered a multitude of issues plaguing society. In all fairness there are conservative leaning teenagers that have encountered the very same problem so I’m not going to make this a Dem vs Rep thing. I am going to write about our inability to debate issues, to speak freely and openly about things without getting bullied and harassed into being silent. People don’t talk anymore, it’s always a contest and the meanest and loudest are always declared the winner. Magnifying this in my opinion is technology and the anonymity of the internet and social media platforms. One is able to eviscerate another without any recourse, and this is very negatively impactful to anyone, but especially kids and teenagers. We all try to talk OVER people we don’t agree with instead of talking to them; and this is made so much easier when done on a keyboard or mobile device. I just lost my train of thought so not sure how to wrap this up. I’m such s flake!

    • tricia says:

      Amen, amen, Kevin. You are right, this is certainly not an ideological problem. It’s more like a basic manners problem complicated by everyone thinking they’re right all the time. We’ve got to find a way to work together.

  18. Catherine says:

    All the support you are rallying here is a true testament to the POSITIVE power of social media.

  19. Louise says:

    Sooooo, first, bravo to you and this excellent commentary. So well crafted that this Forensic Nurse Examiner is concerned about the child abuse ‘mandated reporting laws’. What I read constitutes a mandated report, and you can bet your life that the school will repress all efforts of their faculty to make one.
    The process is easy and user friendly. Call the school’s local police department asap and inform them that you need to report child abuse via the overt threatening of a child – the stalking threats ‘obsessed to find her’, and the dead Hillary innuendos. Legally, any of us reading this need to inquire if a mandated report was made…… And then, the suggestions in the comments are excellent, particularly to send this to a few newspapers, as well as some child advocacy organizations.
    The attack on this girl does go beyond bullying. It begins with bullying, and escalated to cyberstalking and,as you noted, the illegal destruction of political materials. The attackers need to experience the consequences of their behavior , legally and as publicly open as their comments. Their words need to stick onto the abusers, not the frightened victim they intentionally targeted.
    Hugs, Warrior Princess! XXL

    • tricia says:

      Louise, great perspective. I forwarded the info to the girl’s mom. But I think you’re absolutely right, and may file a report myself if nothing happens over the next few days.

    • tricia says:

      Please post comments with proper spelling and punctuation to avoid seeming like an idiot.

    • Paolo Cesar says:

      …Sir, if you have truly read this article, PLEASE be more substantial and clear about your actual argument.

      Then again, considering all of what happened here…please get off if you are not even TRYING to be civil about this.

      That is all.

  20. JCH says:

    I am a parent and anyone who supports a person who committed perjury, murder in Bengazhi, the Clinton crime network AKA Clinton foundation. Takes hundreds of millions from countries that would stone you for saying less. Forget if you’re part of the LGBT community, dead! Hillary should be in prison. She is a criminal like her rapist husband Bill who had his law liiscense revoked for perjury as well. They think the law does not apply to them. I have had many signs stolen from my front lawn on Roscoe supporting MY and my entire families choice Trump/ Pence ! Maybe you should teach your child about honesty and truth. Signs get damaged and stolen and the people that expressed their view also have a 1st amendment right! I can tell the Demicrats and Killary to F off and that’s my right. You want to live in ponte Vedra Beach fl get over it! This is a conservative Republican town and you are a major minority. If you don’t like it move to Northside of Jax, you may feel more at home

  21. Carol says:

    I agree with those who told you to contact local media. I would also contact the St. John’s County Democratic Committee — there is one here in Flagler. This is news. I ran across a woman today who told me her neighbors vandalized and destroyed her Clinton/Paine yard sign. She was literally afraid to post another. She reached out to me when she saw my “Hillary” t-shirt. Even then, she was timid, asking me if my name were Hillary or if I were voting for her. She was afraid of being assaulted. When we canvass door-to-door, we are admonished to go in pairs, with one person sitting in the car ready to call 911 if the other doesn’t report in in a timely manner. This is a sad state of affairs, but one very predictable when one candidate encourages violence against anyone who disagrees with him. If we can no longer disagree without fear of verbal and/or physical abuse and violence, we are no longer the America described in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I fear for our country.

    • tricia says:

      Me, too, but I’m trying to find hope in the exuberance of youth. Thanks so much for your advice and encouragement. It all helps.

  22. charlie says:

    Seems like school admin dropped the ball on this one big time……or they deliberately turned a blind eye to what was happening. How sad that dissenting opinions are not even allowed, much less respected, by the conservative thought police. Reading some of these posts, it’s easy to see why some kids have no tolerance for political diversity. Bullying behaviors in school have consequences, and some kids needed to be reminded of that fact, by admin, if the parents don’t have the bullying talk with their own kids. Someday they or their families may find themselves in the minority in a community or school district. Bet they cry “unfair” then!

    • tricia says:

      Exactly. Without freedom of speech, we see a slow degradation of freedom of thought, and then we’re on a very slippery slope. Thanks for reading.

  23. Kyle says:

    This is the dumbest shit I have seen people get pissed about. Everybody gets hurt from everything. For your daughter is gonna start a club like this she better be able take shit. So what some kids left hashtags. Stop being a stereotype liberal and getting but hurt about everything.

    • tricia says:

      Hi Kyle! Thanks for your comment. Please know that in order for people to interpret your perspective, you must use proper grammar, including correct spelling and use of punctuation. Good luck!

  24. Patti peeples says:

    Count me in to say No to the administration for this milquetoast response. This experience should be used as an example by the school in an assembly. It’s a teaching moment for all. Take this issue STRAIGHT ON. How can we be of help?

    • tricia says:

      Patti, articulating your concern to the school administration and/or the school board is a great place to start. Thanks for your support and interest, and for reading. Stay tuned.

  25. Kyle says:

    Oh I’m sorry I forgot all my comments on a website must be in proper formate.

    • tricia says:

      No, no, I’ll approve them anyway, it just makes you look less dumb if it’s done correctly. Whoops! Too late.

  26. Lex Taylor says:

    I absolutely think that we need to improve our discourse. I see Democrats executing this type of behavior at the national level and I can totally see why young Republicans would think this type of bullying is acceptable. Its the USA, speech is free, but it can have consequences. We need to create a civil forum for good ideas to win because they have merit, not because one side is better at being a bully. We hate it when we get the short end of bullying so we need to protect others.

    • tricia says:

      Lex – Absolutely. Thanks for being on board. #letsbecivil

  27. Paolo Cesar says:

    May I be honest about what I would say to the…perpetrators of this travesty?

    Gentleman (if I can even call you that, given your conduct and choices, so far), this is NOT okay for you to do!

    It is NOT okay to actually threaten someone with violence, especially in a setting meant for peaceful discussion and education! It is NOT okay to casually trash, heckle, and overall belittle anyone in any way or form, particularly presidential candidates and figures of significant power in general!

    And above all, it is NOT okay that you are even putting yourselves in this position to begin with!

    Free speech as a legal concept only means that you have the right to SPEAK. That does NOT mean you have the right to be heard, be agreed with, and certainly NOT to be free of the consequences if and when your speech crosses a line, breaks the law, or hurts someone! And that is EXACTLY what happened!

    Students and parents responsible for this, and administrative staff that let this happen to the point that someone legitimately feared for their life?

    You. Have. FAILED.

    My deepest sympathies to Anna Elizabeth for having to suffer the indignity of this affair, and above all, I HOPE everyone learns from this and that the proper punishments are delivered to the right people.

    If you can’t – or won’t – play fair or speak nicely, you have NO right to play or speak at all.

    That is the Big Picture we need to keep in mind. So long and good luck to everyone (for the idiots that chose to act like thugs? You’re going to need it!)

  28. Voice of Reason says:

    Every American has the right to express their opinion as we all know.
    This is part of what makes our country great.
    But civil conversations can take place between people. There is no reason for anyone who is involved in politics on either side of the aisle to be treated like dirt.
    Talked to with or without a hashtag and told that they are an idiot.
    There is no reason to curse at someone because they don’t agree with you.
    We have seen people killed because they disagreed over which baseball team they support.
    Let that sink in…
    We are in a war against terrorists that are killing innocent Americans like those that died during 9/11.
    Many friends of mine lost loved ones during 9/11.
    Republicans and Democrats that died because they went to work in the Twin Towers or at The Pentagon. Or simply took a plane to go on vacation or travel to a meeting in California.
    One friend of mine ….a firefighter lost his entire ladder company.
    All killed by people that hate all of us Americans.
    Hate our way of life.
    Do we hate each other like that?
    Shouting loud obscenities at a kid or anyone is unnecessary because they are a GOP or Dem supporter . We as Americans are better than this.
    Trying to intimidate and censor someone because you disagree with them is inappropriate.
    Why should this girl who is a democrat or other kids above who support the GOP feel threatened anywhere in the United States of America let alone Ponte Vedra Beach?
    I remember fondly when President Reagan was good friends with Speaker of The House
    Tip O’ Neill.
    Two friends that could put aside their political views and enjoy time spent together.
    This is the example we want for our American kids.
    …One nation under G-d …indivisible with
    Liberty and Justice for all…
    G-d Bless America

    • tricia says:

      Thank you, Voice of Reason. Your name fits you perfectly. Keep preaching.

  29. casey says:

    Can you keep us posted on the outcome? My 10th grader alerted me to this and wants to get involved. if there is already a rally of support somewhere, we’d love to help grow it. But we’re new to town (just moved here in July from Washington, DC of all places) and don’t know that we could START a movement.

    Thanks for writing about this!

    • tricia says:

      Absolutely, Casey. Stay tuned. And welcome to NE Florida!!

    • tricia says:

      I actually did send them this piece, but haven’t heard back from them, which surprised me. Maybe I’ll send it again. Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for a follow-up.

  30. Holley says:

    As the mother and grandmother to highly educated people (I am not) I am so sad by the lack of civility. Our family tries to follow the rule “say what you mean but don’t say it mean”. Politics is the antithesis of this, apparently. It certainly isn’t new looking at what political parties said to one another in the 18th century but one would hope we would have progressed as a nation. Being rude and using violent speech is a desperate act of people who can’t express themselves and are inarticulate no matter what party they belong to.

    • tricia says:

      You may not have a degree, Holley, but you sound pretty educated to me. Your words carry a lot of wisdom. Thanks for sharing.

  31. Austin Williams says:

    By far my greatest high school accomplishment. Reading this utter bs makes me laugh like no other. For starters there was not a single law broken, granted that i did not threaten a presidential candidate nor destroy campaign property (you only assumed that we do) and second off how can you turn this into bullying if the hate was towards the club and not the girl. Sounds like you were just a wee bit butthurt and starting spilling out complete bullshit to push a story. FAKE NEWS

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