A Kansas K-12 school district may soon become among the first in the nation to prohibit “offensive symbols” and “microaggressions” and punish students and employees who violate this ban.
The Board of Education of Lawrence Public Schools will soon vote on a proposal to update its discrimination and harassment policy. It would impose stiff penalties on those who commit a microaggression or tout an offensive symbol. The vote on whether to enact this policy, originally scheduled for June 27, was recently pushed back to allow for more discussion.
“Any student or employee who violates the Discrimination and Harassment Policy is subject to disciplinary action,” said Julie Boyle, communications director of Lawrence Public Schools, noting that each of the 21 schools in the district issue their own handbooks for students and staff.
Heat Street reviewed several of these handbooks, from Lawrence elementary schools to high schools. Most say that students or employees who violate the discrimination and harassment policies can be fired or expelled, among other disciplinary repercussions.
The Lawrence School Board defines microaggressions as “subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at a minority or other non dominant group that are often unintentional or unconsciously reinforce a stereotype.”
Though the idea of microaggressions was conceived in the 1970s at Harvard, it has made a huge resurgence on college campuses recently. Complaints of microaggression, frequently submitted through Bias Response Teams, are increasingly seen as grounds for the discipline of college students and staff. In a recent report on microaggressions by the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, one student complained because a map of the Mediterranean displayed in class “showed demarcations of various nation states in Eurasia, [but] northern Africa was just labeled ‘Africa.’” Students at Oberlin, meanwhile, have complained that racially inauthentic cafeteria food constitutes a microaggression—the same goes for a non-Latino calling soccer “futbol.” Asking where someone is from or where they were born is also taboo. The list goes on.
The Topeka Capital-Journal’s editorial board recently raised two central questions about the proposed policy in Lawrence that remain unanswered: “Who will be the arbiter of what’s offensive? How will teachers and administrators punish students for ‘unintentionally’ or ‘unconsciously’ offending someone?”
Heat Street reached out to both of the school board members who sit on the policy advisory committee that’s suggesting the proposed change. Vanessa Sanburn, board president, did not respond our request for an interview. Shannon Kimball declined to comment “because we are in the midst of receiving input on our policy.”
The Lawrence school district may be the first in the nation to adopt such a policy, though with more than 14,000 public school districts in the United States, it’s difficult to say so definitively.
The Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, said it was unaware of any school policy addressing microagressions or offensive symbols, though it doesn’t collect comprehensive policies of all school districts. Heat Street searched extensively and could not find any cases where K-12 schools had enacted such a policy.
Likewise, local Kansas experts following the Lawrence School Board proposal were unaware of any precedent, and the district’s spokesperson said she had no information about other school districts that had adopted similar policies.
The Lawrence school board’s policy advisory committee was prompted to action after a Lawrence Free State High School student drove a pickup truck to school earlier this year flying a Confederate flag in the back.
Hundreds of his fellow students signed a petition calling for a ban on the flag, and eventually administrators told the student it was forbidden because it disrupted the learning environment, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.