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Teacher rescinds college recommendation after student makes swastika. Both suspended.


The suspension of a Massachusetts teacher for withdrawing a college letter of recommendation for a high school student who fashioned a swastika out of tape at school is drawing national fire.

The teacher and two colleagues at Stoughton High School in Stoughton, Mass., got in trouble related to a Thanksgiving week incident in which a male student created a swastika out of tape while decorating the halls after school. Another student complained and told the teen to remove it. The student who made the Nazi symbol reportedly then made a comment regarding Adolf Hitler's killing of Jews during the Holocaust.

When the incident was reported to the school, the teenage boy was suspended. And that is apparently where the school district believes it should have ended, as does the teen's mom who complained it did not. In, fact, the parent reported her son was being "bullied" by teachers, leading  the superintendent to bring in a civil rights investigator.

According to the local newspaper, the Enterprise, two teachers were reprimanded for talking about the incident while another was suspended without pay for 20 days for withdrawing a letter of recommendation she wrote for the student, prompting the Massachusetts Teachers Association to get involved. (Read the Enterprise stories if you are interested as there are several thorough reports. Thank goodness for local newspapers that cover these stories in detail.)

One issue is whether the tape swastika constituted a hate crime or hate speech, which the Enterprise reports police ruled it did not.

The paper reports:

"The MTA is vigorously defending the teachers who were disciplined, and the statewide organization will support the Stoughton Teachers Association in any way possible as it fights the injustice done to members," Barbara Madeloni, the president of the state association, told The Enterprise on Thursday. "Educators will not allow bigotry and hate to take hold in our schools. Nor will we allow those who speak and act against hate speech to be silenced

One teacher, an Army veteran, is serving a 20-day suspension without pay for talking to one student, her colleagues and rescinding a college letter of recommendation for the student who made the swastika and telling the school why in vague terms, according to the union. The student was enrolled in the high school's Holocaust course at the time.

Two other teachers received letters of reprimand - one talked to her students about the situation when she walked into a classroom and they were speculating on it. And another talked about the situation with her colleagues, as well as one student during a private conversation.

"Without the guidance of administration, teachers used their best professional judgment to address a very serious matter amongst their colleagues and with students when they felt it was appropriate," Melanie Ingrao, the union's grievance chair, told The Enterprise on Wednesday.

Here are my questions about this story:

Are teachers bound by strict confidentiality in all student discipline proceedings and outcomes? What if the incident is widely known in the school, and students are either talking about it or asking about it? Must teachers say nothing ever?

While the sentiment in online forums is clearly on the side of the teachers, are schools legally compelled to protect students who have already been disciplined? Evaluate this in terms of your own kids -- if your son screwed up and was suspended, would you want teachers talking about what he did with other students?

My own kids have gone to school with classmates arrested for theft and robbery. These incidents have sometimes even made the newspaper. The students involved disappear for a while and then show up back in class with nothing ever being said.

However, wouldn't a letter of recommendation fall outside any confidentiality rules? The teacher who wrote the letter signed her name attesting to the student's character. She was not writing on behalf of the school administration. She was signing her own name to a personal letter. Does she have a right to rescind her personal recommendation?

As someone posted online: "A teacher should have the right to rescind a college recommendation letter if a student does something they feel counters the image they had of the student. This is especially important because that letter of recommendation impacts the teacher's future credibility. The school is wrong in their actions and I hope MTA prevails."

However, as the Enterprise reported, the teacher did not just rescind the letter of recommendation, but told the college why she was doing so in "vague" terms. And that might justify the suspension, as this commenter noted:  "The teacher was suspended for 20 days because she explained to college admissions officials why she was revoking her letter of recommendation for the student. The newspaper story repeats it later on in the article, implying that if she had simple revoked the letter without saying why, she would not be in trouble. Presumably, students discipline records are private, and cannot be shared, so in that case, the school is most likely right. However, in the other teacher punishment issues I think the school will lose."

Your thoughts on this gray Sunday that we hope ends on a sunny note with a Falcons win?

 

 

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.