Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Diction Question: Is Calling a High School Principal an Idiot Redundant?

I’m beginning to think that the world holds more unicorns, hippogriffs, and yeti than high school principals with IQs above room temperature. It seems like every place you look, there’s another story about another principal doing something colossally stupid: suspending a girl for getting highlights in her hair, throwing a cheerleader off the team for refusing to cheer by name for her rapist, censoring a song the school choir had been working on for months because (gasp!) it was written by a gay guy.

The newest entrant in the World’s Most Incompetent Principal sweepstakes is Stacey Pullen of Bastrop, LA. Here’s the story: on Tuesday of this week, Ms. Pullen received an e-mail from a student who identified himself as an atheist. The student, who turns out to be graduating senior Damon Fowler, threatened to call the ACLU if the traditional prayer was included in the commencement ceremony. [Note: Fowler says in his Reddit account that he contacted the superintendent rather than (in addition to?) the principal.] After consulting with the school’s attorneys, Pullen decided to change the program. Speaking of programs, in the other sense of that term, the late decision also required re-printing the written documents describing the evening’s events at an “undetermined” cost.

So far, with the exception of having had a quite likely unconstitutional prayer as part of the graduation proceedings for rather a long time, no doubt, Principal Pullen had done nothing wrong. Jack Marshall is a lawyer and I’m not, so I’m going to believe him that prayer per se is not inherently unconstitutional. But here’s where our commentaries diverge: Marshall argues that the prayer might well have been legal, and that Fowler acted legally but unethically in insisting that his wishes not to have a prayer ought to trump those of the overwhelming majority who wanted one, and that, after all, a two-minute prayer is unlikely to do him lasting harm.

I, on the other hand, would point to the ready capitulation of the school after consulting with their lawyers, suggesting that there’s not only a really good chance that this particular manifestation of prayer not only is illegal now, but has been for some time. Laws, especially those dealing with rights defined by the Bill of Rights, need to be enforced even when no one complains: relegating African-Americans to the back of the bus wasn’t ethically supportable the day before Rosa Parks refused to move any more than it was the day after. If the school felt its actions were legal, of course, the correct course of action would have been to tell young Fowler that he was free to call the ACLU or anyone else, but there was going to be a prayer as part of graduation.

Moreover, I have a little experience with this sort of thing. I’ve never spoken at a graduation, but I was asked to deliver the invocation at the Honor Banquet my senior year. I was given strict instructions, however, not to privilege a particular religion over another, or indeed over no religion at all. That was 38 years ago; I might have hoped we’d have moved forward rather than backwards as a nation in terms of diversity in the intervening years.

But here’s the real kicker. It was the world’s worst-kept secret that a crowd of loud pseudo-Christians were conspiring to co-opt the moment of silence that had been substituted for the prayer and to turn it right back, not only into a prayer, but frankly into a rather nasty, divisive, one masquerading as something remotely inclusive. Note: prayers offered in humility to invoke God’s blessing are not greeted with whoops and cheers. I should mention that the video linked above is actually from what appears to have been the best-attended graduation rehearsal in history. But the graduation ceremony itself also included a senior girl, Laci Mae Mattice, detouring from the prescribed moment of silence to offer up the Lord’s Prayer, leading the audience in its recitation “if they wanted to,” presumably with Pullen standing mutely by. They might not be good at much at Bastrop High, but whoever teaches their course in Disingenuous is remarkably proficient.

As noted, the plans to carry out this little religious insurgency were public knowledge. Fowler had written about them: “they're talking about organizing a large vocal prayer during the moment of silence despite what I've done.” No, Damon, because, not despite. So Pullen had to have known, too. And rather than take over the moment of silence herself, or to take the microphone away from the girl who so smugly disobeyed the principal’s decision, Stacey Pullen did bupkes. Twice! Once at the rehearsal and again at the actual ceremony. Or, rather, she facilitated the whole charade by giving the floor over to the sanctimonious little brat who proceeded to do what everyone knew she was going to do.

Pullen, in other words, was either so incompetent she didn’t know what was going to happen, based on what student was given charge over the “moment of silence,” or she actively participated in undermining the intent, if not the letter, of the law. This latter possibility, which I suspect is the more likely scenario, consists of a smirky nudge-nudge-wink-wink born out of petulance towards Fowler and a seething contempt for real American—or Christian—values.

In the words of Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie S. Esman,
Public school officials must remember that they have a duty to uphold the law, to protect the rights of all of their students, and that any failure to do so costs money that should be spent in the classroom. Religious freedom has flourished in this country because we do not allow the government to promote one faith over others.
That sure sounds reasonable to me.

People who know me know that one of my favorite compliments is that a given individual is “good at his/her job.” I apply this to everyone from actors to veterinarians to waitresses, and it is an expression of great respect, whatever the job in question. It may be, as Jack Marshall writes, that Damon Fowler might grow up to be a jerk. He might even be one now. But Stacey Pullen is far worse: she is either colossally ignorant of her own students or a contemptible co-conspirator in a coordinated effort to embarrass one of her own seniors at his own graduation. Either way, she’s not good at her job.


Jack marshall said...

A couple things:

1) The fact that the lawyers caved prove nothing one way or the other. The lawyers undoubtedly said, "Yes, it's a bit of a gray area, and we could win and we could lose, but it will cost a lot of money either way, and its a crap shoot---why risk it? That's why threats from a solitary parent objecting to, say,unholy magic in "Into the Woods" can get a musical nixed. Schools are risk averse, and lawyers will assess risk.

2) A spontaneous hijacked prayer with no school input is definitely not a First Amendment violation.

3) The whole mess proves my point about Damon's actions. As was predictable, they just sparked unhappiness and conflict...all so his shell-like ears wouldn't be offended by a little prayer. What a waste.

4) I have always believed this whole line of cases are unnecessary, and made bad law. It's a stretch to say having a prayer at a ceremony is a state attempt to establish a religion.

5) I put Damon in the same class with the people who sue to stop nativity scenes. As if a manger and a cow hurts anyone...yeah, it's technically a violation, but if nobody objects, it makes people happy. You have to be a real jerk to want to stop something like a Nativity scene. Damon will be doing this when he's about 30. Mark my words.

Aquaria said...

Santa Fe ISD v Jane Doe says student-led prayers are not allowed.

The Bastrop case meets all of the criteria for being unconstitutional, as per SFISD v Jane Doe, which states that prayers are not allowed "on school property, at school-sponsored events, over the school's public address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer".

Was that vomitouts prayer spewed:

on school property? Yes

at a school-sponsored event? Yes

over the school's public address system? Yes.

by a speaker representing the student body? Yes

under the supervision of school faculty? Yes.

pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer?

That the prayer was a regular spew of stupid at graduations was apparent when Fowler asked for it not to be done indicates that the school had a policy of IMPLICITLY ENCOURAGING the brainwashing of one cult's stupid onto anybody unlucky enough to encounter these scumbags.

When the bigoted school officials did nothing to stop not one, but two, displays of religious bigotry by sliming everyone with Christard ignorance and hate, they were exhibiting a policy of IMPLICITLY ENCOURAGING Christard stupidity.

Sorry, but the ACLU is going to wipe the floor up with these scumbags.

Aquaria said...

The fact that the lawyers caved prove nothing one way or the other.

It proves that they thought that the school might get sued successfully for being fucking bigoted morons.

2) A spontaneous hijacked prayer with no school input is definitely not a First Amendment violation.

There is school input: Deciding not to stop the vomit is implicitly supporting it, which is in violation of SFISD v Jane Doe

3) The whole mess proves my point about Damon's actions. As was predictable, they just sparked unhappiness and conflict

So did Rosa Parks when she refused to get up from that seat a white bigot wanted. She was right to stand up against a law of hate, and Damon Fowler was right to stand up against a policy and CULTURE of hate.

) I have always believed this whole line of cases are unnecessary, and made bad law.

Let's make being a stupid, bigoted white male who is criminally blind to his stupidity illegal, and see how you feel about whether or not that's a "bad" law.

I put Damon in the same class with the people who sue to stop nativity scenes.

People can have all the displays of their lame-brained fantasy on their own damned yards all they want.

But those idiotic displays have no business on property that belongs to WE THE FUCKING PEOPLE, which is ALL of us who pay taxes, not just YOU THE STUPID BIGOTED RELIGIOUS BOOT-LICKERS.

Do keep up, dillweed.

manjushri924 said...


What strikes me as interesting about the consultation of the lawyers is that it apparently wasn't done years earlier: surely the school officials recognized the grey area years ago--it's not like these cases are obscure. This goes back to a point I make often: we can complain all we want about this or that person or group getting too much influence, but the fact is, the rest of us let them get away with it.

I see no way to construe what happened in Bastrop as a "spontaneous hijacked prayer with no school input." It wasn't spontaneous, clearly, and the school either covertly encouraged it or at the very least did nothing to stop it. If everyone in town is talking about it, and it happens in the rehearsal, it can't come as a surprise when it happens at the event itself. The only questions are whether the collusion of the school administrators was active or passive, and whether the students who "hijacked" the proceedings knew in advance that their little fit of petulance--surely little different from Damon Fowler's--would go unchecked.

I'm not arguing that Fowler isn't a pain in the ass. But, even apart from his being in a strong position legally, he has the excuse of being an adolescent. The principal and superintendent, however, need to act like grown-ups. I see no evidence that they have done so.

Finally, even if what we have is "bad law," the fact remains that it is the law. And someone did complain. So it's the responsibility of the school officials to enforce that law, not to tacitly (at least) approve of a circumvention of it, however technically legal that circumvention might be.

Aquaria: You are free, even encouraged, to state your case with as much fervor as you choose. And I agree with much of the substance of what you say. But personal attacks against other commenters (or against me) will not be tolerated.