From the Archives
Our senior year, Rachel Herman and I decided to audition for the Int’l Banquet at school, and sang the German version of “99 Luftballons,” even though neither of us knew German or even half the lyrics. We danced, improved, and tried to sing the parts we did know in the audition, all to the appalled looks of the foreign language faculty. Needless to say, we were not selected to perform. I was also mad about what was selected to perform. Stupid-ass people from my Spanish class singing in sombreros, so we organized a mini-protest and wore signs at the Int’l Banquet and passed out signs to other people, hoping to cause some trouble. Well, we did. The Mount Vernon Gazette published my letter as an opinion article, the county conducted an investigation, and I got called down to a nervous prinipal’s office all the time, who was worried that I would sue the school or something. As a result, Ms. Coile, my Spanish teacher hated me the whole year, gave me a D, and I had to deal with hostility from the dumb boys in my Spanish class that I critiqued every fucking day. Fast times at WePo High.
To: Foreign Language Department, Ms. Carma Norman, Superintendent Domenech, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mt. Vernon Gazette
From: Charlie Q
Subject: Ethnic stereotypes at the International Banquet (March 23)
I was in attendance at the West Potomac International Banquet on March 23 and what I saw repulsed me. I saw no celebration of culture, instead I saw numerous stereotypes of multiple ethnicities. One of the more bothering scenes was a quartet of non-Spanish students doing a grotesque imitation of “Spanish culture,” wearing sombreros and serapes while singing the alphabet and the days of the week. A good comparison to this would be if a bunch of white students were to do a minstrel show by performing with painted black faces. Few Spanish people wear sombreros anymore, that is a common misconception held by tourists and many Americans. My dad came from Chile and lived in Mexico for awhile; life was fairly normal with people dressing like most westerners do - no sombreros. These stereotypical misconceptions of other cultures only add to the ignorance of them that so plagues our already racially divided society. One would hope that schools might be an environment where students are taught the truth about other cultures so that the next generation might not be so racially divided. One should be outraged that students are being taught these almost bigoted misconceptions.
In addition to my outrage over that, I am even more so outraged that the school tried to stifle the voices of those who spoke out against these ethnic stereotypes. Many students were wearing paper signs taped their chest that read: “Fight Ethnic Stereotypes” or “Eliminate Ignorance At Its Root—speak out against ethnic stereotypes.” Students were simply exercising their freedom of speech by non-violently and quietly speaking out against ethnic stereotypes. Foreign language teachers told students to remove their signs. We should celebrate different viewpoints - not suppress them!
The foreign language teachers were outraged that they did not have an obsequious, homogeneous crowd of sheep before them. I, myself, probably had at least five different teachers separately come tell me that I should take my sign off. Many teachers went up to students and told them that the principal, Ms. Norman had said to take the signs off; that is the argument my Spanish teacher used when she accosted me and told me to remove my sign. But, in later talking with the principal, I learned that she had said no such thing. Ms. Norman told me that often teachers will say she said something just to get students to listen. This appears to be that type of situation since Ms. Norman never once said that students needed to remove their signs. The foreign language teachers telling students to remove their sign was a definite violation of our constitutional rights.
In the United States vs. O’Brien, 391 US 367 (1968), the Supreme Court upheld the centrality of political speech and said that it is protected. They made a distinction between speech and conduct. And for those that may argue this does not apply in schools, the Supreme Court has clearly said that it does in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 US 503 (1969). In that case the students’ freedom of speech was reinforced as students were allowed the right to wear black armbands on their arms to protest the Vietnam War. This is very similar to our case and so it is quite distressing to see how our fundamental rights were violated. The Burger court expanded on this, in the case of Bethel School District, No. 403 vs. Fraser, 478 US 675 (1986). The Bethel decision permitted school authorities to discipline students whose speech in their judgment is offensively lewd and indecent.
Our speech was neither. And it does not matter what the county policy is, because the supremacy clause in the Constitution explicitly states that the federal law is supreme over local law. So, the actions of March 23 were definitely unconstitutional. I hope some action is taken against the foreign language teachers who violated our civil liberties. The cherished rights that we hold as Americans were raped. One might teach them what students’ constitutional rights are, so that hopefully in the future they will not try to suppress the voices of those who rightfully voice their dissent to things they oppose, like I now do in this letter.
What follows is the response from the County, written on May 10, 1999
TO: Robert E. Frye, Sr.
FROM: Daniel W. Jackson, Jr.
SUBJECT: International Banquet at West Potomac High School
This is in response to your inquiry about a complaint by student, Charlie Q, against the teachers and administrators in charge of the International Banquet at West Potomac High School on March 23, 1999. Mr. Q sent an e-mail to Carma Norman, principal, West Potomac; the foreign language department; Superintendent Domenech; the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mount Vernon Gazette. Mr. Q charged that the entertainment at the banquet promoted ethnic stereotypes; that Hispanic culture was demeaned by non-Hispanic students singing songs in Spanish and wearing sombreros and serapes; and that administrators violated free speech rights of several students who protested about ethnic stereotyping. He expressed the “hope that some action is taken against the foreign language teachers who violated our civil liberties.”
Bonnie Becker, equity specialist, Office of Equity and Compliance (OEC), investigated these charges by interviewing: Ms. Norman; Scott Turner, assistant principal, who supervises the West Potomac foreign language department; Gisela Carty, chair, foreign language department; Martha Abbott, coordinator, foreign language, Department of Instructional Services; and Don Sheldon, Area 1 Superintendent, all of whom were present at the banquet. Ms. Becker reviewed notes taken by Mr. Turner when he had interviewed six foreign language teachers (including Ms. Carty and Bonnie Coile) shortly after the event took place. Christian Braunlich, School Board member, also attended the dinner although Ms. Becker did not interview him.
The purpose of the International Banquet is to showcase the school’s foreign language department by giving the students and opportunity to demonstrate the language skills and cultural awareness they had acquired in the academic program. Skits for the after-dinner entertainment were chosen by tryouts in front of a panel of several foreign language teachers and Mr. Turner. Mr. Q himself tried out for the entertainment program with a presentation in German. His skit was not selected by the panel, because it was described as “not well prepared,” “painfully embarrassing” and “a horror show.”
One of the skits selected by the panel consisted of a medley of Spanish Level One songs sung by a group of several boys. These boys were not Hispanic but rather students in the Level One Spanish classes and studying Spanish as a foreign language. Ms. Abbott said that the songs are widely used in the beginning Spanish curriculum. The sombreros and serapes that the boys wore as costumes while singing these songs could be regarded as “folk dress” that reflected traditional culture rather than as stereotypes. There were no actions in the skits that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Hispanic peoples or any other ethnic groups. In fact, Ms. Carty said that the persons involved with the show had made adjustments in some skits, specifically to avoid cultural misunderstandings.
In reference to the alleged abridgement of free speech rights of the students, Mr. Turner remembered seeing students wearing signs at least half way through the banquet and said that no students complained to him about being made to remove their signs. Ms. Abbott, also, recalled noticing that a few students had sings fastened on their chests but that neither the students nor the signs appeared to be causing any problem. According to Ms. Carty, as people were arriving for the banquet, one of the teachers told her that some students were wearing signs. Among the slogans were: “Fight Ethnic Stereotypes” and “Eliminate Ignorance at Its Root—speak out against ethnic stereotypes.” Of the 350-plus persons attending the banquet, Ms. Carty said she saw about five or six students with signs. She told Mr. Q that his sign was inappropriate, because it had nothing to do with the purpose of the banquet and that she thought the students should not be wearing them. However, she did not make him take the sign off nor did she take any other actions on the subject. Another teacher, Ms. Coile, also told Mr. Q that the signs were inappropriate and told him that she “would strongly suggest that you remove the signs.” Like Ms. Carty, she not make him take the sign off.
While Mr. Q and the several other students who participated in this protest obviously did not personally approve of the presentation of the Level One Spanish songs, neither the songs nor the presentation violated FCPS policy or regulations. In approving this activity, school administrators had exercised reasonable care in selecting groups for the after-dinner program and chosen material that was specifically relevant to the academic program of the foreign language curriculum.
The letter from Mr. Q indicates that he researched court cases associated with student free speech rights, and he is to be commended for his effort. There is not question that the students had a right to express their opinions, and none of the teachers or administrators made the students remove their signs. The students apparently knew about the skit with the Level One Spanish songs prior to attending the banquet. However, they did not make efforts to let the program planners know of their concern before the night of the performance so that problems could be resolved while the show was still in rehearsal. What Mr. Q interpreted as a violation of free speech rights of the students was within the permissible behavior of teachers who have not only their own right to express opinions but also an obligation to give guidance to students about the public exercise of free speech.
The Office of Equity and Compliance concurs with the decision of the school administration not to take action against the teachers involved. The OEC will recommend that the principal remind the entire faculty about their ever-present responsibilities both to protect student free speech rights and to guide student behavior.
If there are any questions about our findings, please contact Bonnie Becker, Office of Equity and Compliance, 750-8485.
cc: Daniel A. Domenech, Don Sheldon, Carma Norman, Charlie Q