A Student Bill of Rights

“Since Littleton, the cost of being different has gone up. Thousands of powerful e-mail messages have chronicled an educational system that glorifies the traditional and the normal, and brutalizes and alienates people who are or who are perceived as different under various names – geeks, freaks, nerds, Goths and oddballs. One of the powerful messages coming out of Colorado is that so many of these “different” kids say they find school boring, oppressive, and utterly hostile, feelings echoed by educational survivors, many of whom are now parents. The hysteria over Littleton has only made things worse. It’s time geeks defined and lobbied for some new rights. From their own messages, here are some places to start.”

These are the words JonKatz chose to open his third article on Slashdot about the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. As with the first two articles, this one was full of stories about students singled out in the hysteria immediately following the Colorado Massacre.

But instead of simply reporting and providing a sympathetic outlook for high school outsiders past and present, he went on to propose a Bill of Rights for students.

Geeks, Goths, nerds, and others are already socially ostracized and dumped on by their peers. After Littleton, teachers and administrators have placed these “misfits” under a magnifying glass.

Instead, we should be trying to understand them and their need to be different.

“At the very top of the agenda: Freedom from abuse, humiliation and cruelty. Geeks, nerds, and oddballs have the right to attend school in safety. Teachers and administrators have an obligation to make dignity for everybody – not just the popular and the conventional – an urgent educational concern, in the same way they’ve taken on racism and other forms of bigotry.”

When I was in high school, the poets, pot heads, and chess players were generally despised. From what I read, things haven’t changed much. At best, these students are ignored by the jocks and the in crowd; at worst, they are tormented.

In a society trying to teach tolerance, the very place we most strive to teach it seems to also be the place where it is least understood. Some people simply aren’t insiders – never will be, and often don’t want to be. They are unique individuals who choose to question the norm, not conform to it.

“And: freedom. Why does the First Amendment end at the school door, when many kids, especially geeks, have spent much of their lives in the freest part of American culture – the Internet? Online, people can speak about anything: dump on God, talk about sex, flame pundits, express themselves politically and rebelliously. In school, no one can.”

Yet despite all the freedom on the Internet, it isn’t a hotbed of anarchy. Instead, internet users find or create their own support groups, a place where they will be accepted. The Internet is filled with virtual communities for computer geeks, Goths, and all the other types who don’t fit in with the masses.

Why don’t schools provide forums for these students to meet and discuss the issues? Instead, they condemn what they often don’t even try to understand.

Unable to find that outlet at school or in the community, outsiders increasingly seek it out on the internet.

“Finally: access to popular culture and to the Internet isn’t a privilege. It’s a right. For many kids, the Net isn’t alienation, but its alternative; it’s their intellectual, social, cultural and political wellspring. They need it to learn, to feel safe and connected, and to function economically, socially and politically in the next century. Obviously, no rights come without responsibilities – and those should be spelled out both in schools and in families. But access to the Net and to other facets of one’s culture ought not be a toy that parents and teachers are willing to dispense to ‘good’ and ‘normal’ boys and girls. For many kids, it’s their lifeblood, and it shouldn’t be restricted, withdrawn or used manipulatively except under the most serious circumstances.”

A society is judged by how it treats the outsider.

What happened in Littleton was inexcusable, but it was also a consequence of students being dumped on by their peers. After all, the goal of the shooters wasn’t to show others what they could do, but to get even with those who had made life hell for them.

If teachers and administrators had created an environment where is was acceptable to think different, dress different, and simply be different, perhaps we wouldn’t be discussing these issues weeks after the tragedy.

Instead, because the society in microcosm known as high school can be such hell for some students, we still shake our heads about two misguided boys, too easy access to guns, too many funerals, and one girl martyred for her faith.

If we don’t learn the importance of accepting those who are different, even while we disagree with them, the story will continue to play itself out in shootings, bombings, and more.

We need to reduce the cost of being different.

Further Reading

Keywords: #columbine #terrorism

Short link: http://goo.gl/0nfsMk