CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lost in the muddle with all that has happened recently at the West Virginia Board of Education is the fact that the state's newest rules on harassment at school do not apply equally or fairly to all students.
This is important because an uneven rule is certain to result in uneven application.
Over the summer the new rules on harassment in public schools went into effect, stating at the outset that any single member employed in a WV public school has the unilateral authority to, "limit vulgar or offensive speech inconsistent with the school's responsibility for teaching the boundaries of socially appropriate behavior."
The problem with this new regulation is that neither the state nor its schools have a say in what should be the threshold for determining what is and isn't "offensive speech." And this seems very strange, especially if censoring, "offensive speech" is the essential means of controlling student harassment.
Without some type of objective standard the good speech of students may be subject to state censors along with the bad, quite often to the expense of religious liberty. (Since speech is often the mere articulation of someone's belief, how long before the state aggrandizes the power to censor one's belief -- be it philosophical, religious, political, or otherwise?)
Therefore, the state Department of Education's newest policy is undermined by its potential for unfair application. Absent some alterations, the new law subjects a student's comment on the bus, passing reference in the halls, or belief respectfully expressed in a classroom discussion to censoring by the state.
We are not talking about words some students use that newspapers cannot print or that mothers once used soap to rinse from the mouths of their children. Those are vulgar words. Vulgarity is appropriately regulated. Students who profess to follow Christ and use vulgar language toward anyone deny the sanctifying effects of the very Gospel they profess.
Nonetheless, the First Amendment does not permit the state through its schools to censor speech that one state employee finds to be offensive because it is disagreeable. Neither should we.
Parents have a right to expect the enforcement of student behavior that will facilitate a learning environment. Yet, the school's responsibility is to affirm and reinforce what is taught within the home, not supplant the right and proper work of parents.
As the state Board of Education plots its schools' future, they do well to remember that the more authority the State of West Virginia, through its schools, claims from the privileges of parents, the less those parents will aid in the affirmation of whatever responsibility the school's deem themselves responsible for and the more parents will demand educators to do what they are ill-equipped to do.
Education cannot become shared-parenting without causing permanent damage to both.
Rather, in this and every area of public education, the state Board of Education ought to keep as its paramount consideration how they might best serve the parents of this state. And not just in words. It must adopt a wholesale change that expects parents to parent and teachers to teach. Not censor speech -- offensive or otherwise.
Dys is the president and general counsel of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia.