The complicated line between bullying and free speech in schools

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The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 437 incidents of harassment between Nov. 9 and Nov. 14 last year, the days following the election of President Donald Trump. The same report said most of the occurrences were reported at K-12 school locations. According to the Southern Poverty Law center, most of the incidents targeted immigrants, African Americans or the LGBT community. The reports raise questions about the freedom of speech in schools and the line between students’ First Amendment rights and harassment.

Katherine Cowan, director of communications at the National Association of School Psychologists, said one of many the responsibilities for schools is to make all students feel safe and welcome.

“There are so many different ways kids can express themselves that don’t make others feel harassed,” Cowan said. “That’s a filter schools can look at.”

According to Cowan, making another student feel unsafe is harassment and bullying.

Anti-bullying advocate Kevin Epling.

Rianna Middleton

Anti-bullying advocate Kevin Epling.

Anti-bullying advocate Kevin Epling, also a Michigan State University brand communications videographer said schools walk a complicated line between allowing students to express their freedoms while also curtailing bullying.

“I’m sure it’s a very difficult thing for schools,” Epling said. “You have the freedom to say whatever you wish, but your words hold weight and you’re responsible for those words.”

Suzy Khoury, a teacher at Gardner Leadership, Law and Government 4-8 Academy, said that the freedom of speech is a matter of character and can be expressed without offending others.

“The freedom of speech is a freedom for everyone, whether in school or out of school,” Khoury said.

According to Cowan, free speech is handled differently in schools than in the general public.

“There are many instances of people putting up hateful language that undermines certain populations and our court system says that’s free speech,” Cowan said. “In the school setting, targeting populations of students and making them feel unsafe, that’s another light.”

Epling said young people are more affected than adults by what is said about them.

“Some people would take both opinions, that people should be able to say whatever they want,” Epling said. “But they’re still at that age where verbalizing or putting things down on paper or through text has a much deeper impact. It does change their outlook on who they are and what they can do for the rest of their life.”

According to Epling, the 2016 presidential campaign revealed bullying tactics on both sides, including being robust, overbearing and incendiary. Epling said students are behaving that way because they saw adults do it.

“Everything that has happened in the election and now, in the White House leadership, shows that if you have the power, you can pretty much push and get your own way,” Epling said. “That is bullying. That’s being reflected in some of the schools, and we’ve seen it.”

Epling said that schools should take on an educational approach with their students. He said his advocacy work focuses on teaching students that bullying is not the norm.

“I think schools really should be protecting a student’s freedom of speech because it is tied to the freedom of ideas,” Epling said. “Cutting back on one cuts back on the other. The more students understand about when to use their freedom of speech and how to use it in certain ways, it can actually help promote a much calmer and cohesive culture in schools.”

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