Where Are Our Voices of Reason?
As America debates its identity, school leaders have a responsibility to address the rising uncivil behavior proliferating in our schools.
BY JULIE L. HACKETT/School Administrator, April 2018

Julie Hackett, left, superintendent in Taunton, Mass., greets a preschooler with his grandmother outside one of the district’s schools.
Recent events call into question who we are and what we believe as a nation. We are seeing this in the lack of common decency and civil discourse in our schools. We feel a growing sense of unrest and uneasiness.

As public school leaders, we want to confront issues of civility, but we recognize that people may misconstrue any move we make to be a political statement for or against the left or the right. So what is a superintendent to do about the lack of civil discourse and intolerance playing out in society? Don’t we carry a moral obligation to promote acceptance, compassion and respect for all?
As America debates its identity, I believe we must be discernible voices of reason.

Continual Reminders
Now in my 10th year as superintendent in Taunton, Mass., a diverse urban school system less than an hour south of Boston, I am regularly reflecting on issues of civility that have played out recently in the world and in my community. All impact my leadership and our students. Like the rapid-fire allusions to people and historical events in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” from the ’80s, controversies of late fill my mind:

Neo-Nazis, KKK, White Supremacists, no way;
Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and the Boston Marathon;
Statue of Robert E. Lee, Freddie Gray, and I can’t breathe;
Ahmed Mohammed, Khizr Khan, it’s a clock and not a bomb;
Unite the right, blood and soil, Charlottesville, there’s more turmoil.

And you know the words to the rest of the song. While it may be true that we didn’t start the fire, are school leaders doing enough to fight it?

Corrosion of Values
Matters of civility and periods of political unrest are not uncommon in this country. What seems unusual, however, is our collective response to issues that threaten to compromise our national ideal of liberty and justice for all.

School leaders today find themselves in the crosshairs of events that create a societal furor, with sharp divisions and loyalties on all sides of an issue. Black lives matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter — a crescendo of polarizing public opinion affecting the hearts and minds of many leaves superintendents and school leaders to question whether and how to lead in these trying and tumultuous times.

Napolean Bonaparte said “a leader is a dealer in hope,” and to my mind, these words ring true. If we don’t speak out against injustice and encourage adults to engage in civil discourse and set healthy examples for our young people, who will?

Our students and staffs count on us to be a voice of reason in times of public controversy. Unfortunately, an erosion of values seems to be the rule and not the exception today, and young people need our help to make sense of the world. There are far too many examples from my own experience that reflect a corrosion of values, so let me share one that is recent.

Back in January, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Using my @tpssuper Twitter account, I posted a photo of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist for female education, along with one of her quotes, “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” For the benefit of my followers, many of whom are my students, I added the caption, “On #MartinLutherKingJrDay, a powerful reminder that you have what it takes to make a difference.”

Shortly after I posted the tweet, I received a reply from @livforfreedom who said, “I agree with this, but why show a foreigner? Don’t we have great teachers right here in Taunton you can quote? Americans don’t wear headscarves.” My mind flashed to the beautiful young girl wearing a hijab who smiled at me in the lobby of the high school the previous day and the many other Indian Americans who enrich our lives and strengthen our schools and community.

Knowing it is my responsibility as a human being if not a leader in the public square to speak up, I thought long and hard about how best to craft my response — not for the benefit of @livforfreedom but for the young people who were undoubtedly watching. I kept my response positive and factual, and to my delight it was favorited and retweeted by many. I replied, “We have many great teachers here in Taunton, and a year ago they took 50+ THS students to see Malala, the youngest Nobel laureate and an inspiration to many of us. She is an important role model for all, especially the young American women in our schools who dress like her.”

Shared Experiences
At the urging of Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, many of my colleagues are tackling the issue of civility head-on, making it their mission to speak out against injustice. In September, MASS invited the Anti-Defamation League to a convening of the MASS executive officers to discuss the issue of civility in public schools.

At that time, the ADL reported it had received complaints of nearly 80 hate crimes in Massachusetts schools in September, a rate that far exceeded the handful of complaints typically received during the first month of school — and these were just the hate crimes known and documented by the ADL. As the current president of MASS, I encouraged our executive board members to share their experiences with uncivil behavior in their schools. The massive burden today’s school leaders face could be felt in their collective response.

As we talked, an urban superintendent shared a picture of a Nazi swastika painted on the bleachers at her school. Another urban superintendent spoke about a student arriving at school on the first day carrying a copy of Mein Kampf and shouting “Heil Hitler!” as he gave his teachers the Nazi salute.

A superintendent from a middle-class community talked about how her efforts to be proactive backfired when she shared an informational resource created by her school system’s legal counsel with guidelines for educators to use to promote civility in public schools. The law firm was berated by a school committee member for ostensibly taking a political position. When it came time to approve the transgender policy shortly after, this same superintendent said she was apprehensive to bring it to her school committee for fear of backlash, yet it passed with barely a conversation.

A superintendent from an affluent school community 30 miles west of Boston summed up our feelings well. “I used to know what to do as a superintendent,” he said, “but I don’t have a damn clue what I’m supposed to do or how I’m supposed to lead anymore.”

An Emotional Response
During this meeting, one of my superintendent colleagues who had just visited a Nazi concentration camp on a trip to Poland with his colleagues was moved to tears. He emotionally recounted his experiences during the tour, and he shared a quote that a guide shared with his group after their visit to one of the gas chambers in Auschwitz:

“I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic is important only if they serve to make our children more human.” (Excerpt of a letter by a Holocaust survivor to educators, in Teacher and Child by Haim Ginott, child psychologist and author, published on the website of the Holocaust and Humanity Center.)

The words weighed heavily on every superintendent in the room. Apathy breeds learned monsters, and indifference to intolerance threatens our very existence. How do we disrupt a generation from repeating the atrocities of the past? If we are serious about helping our children become more human, superintendents and school leaders must tact-fully confront issues of incivility both large and small, and settle for nothing less than a culture of respect for all.

JULIE HACKETT is superintendent of the Taunton Public Schools in Taunton, Mass. Twitter: @tpssuper