Back in April, the Gay-Straight Alliance of Craig High School in Janesville, Wisconsin participated in the Day of Silence, and showed a video to accompany it: the viral hit “Kids React to Gay Marriage.”
In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be news, and the showing of the video itself wasn’t. But this week, the Janesville School District superintendent issued an apology to the community. The district’s policy says that in the case of “controversial or political issues,” the school is required to give a platform to “all sides” of the matter.
“Upon further review of the video, the School District of Janesville Administration believes this video was inconsistent with the goals and purpose of the Day of Silence Observance. The National website states that the purpose of the Day of Silence is to call attention to the harassment and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. In the School District of Janesville the focus of the Day of Silence is also to eliminate bullying and harassment toward ALL students.”
Janesville has been a consistently Democratic district for many years; the attitude of the school district isn’t indicative of a deeply entrenched conservative mentality. Even if this idea of giving “both sides” equal credence isn’t necessarily widespread school policy, it’s a widespread belief; the idea that it’s important to be “neutral” on social issues if you want to be “fair” to everyone. Not only is this philosophy not exclusive to Janesville, it’s not exclusive to schools; it’s the same reason why news outlets like FOX and CNN choose to cover issues like protecting trans students in a “debate” format. Just like CNN’s decision to give uninformed transphobe Randy Thomasson equal billing with Masen Davis, who was actually involved in the bill’s passage, Janesville’s apology is unnecessary and ultimately harmful. Rather than achieving its intended goal of making the playing field level for “ALL students,” it makes the school a hostile place for marginalized students.
A major flaw in thinking when it comes to “showing both sides of the issue” is that discussion of those issues, even if they’re “controversial” or “political,” should primarily be driven by respecting opinions rather than facts. If facts about the dangers facing trans students in California had been the priority, then Davis’ voice would have been the only one necessary; Thomasson’s only contribution was his personal opinion on trans children (which, as a cis person, is pretty meaningless). Similarly, Janesville’s focus on “eliminating bullying and harassment toward ALL students” communicates more concern about people’s feelings than people’s real experiences. It’s true that some people will feel like they or their kids aren’t receiving enough attention if queer and trans kids are centered in discussions about bullying. The fact is, however, that queer and trans kids will still experience disproportionate amounts of bullying, harassment, violence and all of the attendant mental health issues that come along with them, regardless of what straight cis people’s feelings are.
The decision to make the general public’s feelings a priority over hard facts isn’t necessarily a surprising one for instituations, like schools or media organizations, that rely on public support. In order to be successful, these institutions need the goodwill and participation of their communities, and when community members are displeased, it can throw real wrenches into the works. Indeed, the apology in Janesville was prompted when a school board member received complaints from parents and grandparents that anti-marriage-equality views weren’t receiving equal representation. The difference is that unlike news organizations, schools are tasked with both the safety and the intellectual development of children. Both those things are compromised when we pursue “neutrality.” Marginalized kids learn that their pain and harassment is something that can be debated against, and that the “other side” will be taken at least as seriously as their real experiences are, even if it’s totally off base. And all kids learn that feeling strongly about something gives you a pass on having to examine the facts of a matter and listen to other people’s experiences, which constitutes a serious blow to the critical thinking skills we’re supposed to value so highly in education.
Janesville is just one school district, and honestly, it’s far ahead of many others in that it allows students to form a GSA and participate in the Day of Silence without repercussions. But it does provide an important and instructive lesson on the pitfalls of trying to be “fair to everyone” when marginalized and at-risk communities are involved. It’s silly and cheap for adults to engage in that kind of rhetoric at all, but when kids’ safety is on the line, it’s unconscionable.
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