On swastikas and rec letters

I've seen several stories this week about an incident that began back in November. You can read the original local story here, a piece from Inside Higher Ed here, or a Huffington Post article here

The basics, as best as I can tell from reports, are that a student at a Massachusetts high school made a swastika out of tape and displayed it in the school hallway. When another student confronted him about it, he then made an offensive remark. The student was in the school's Holocaust class. The student (or multiple students? It's unclear) was disciplined by the school, but so were three teachers. Two teachers were given reprimands for discussing the incident with other teachers and a student, and a third teacher was suspended for rescinding her college recommendation letter for the offending student.

I have no direct knowledge of the case, and I'm not a lawyer. But as a career high school teacher, I think a lot of this makes sense to me. Let me, as best as I can without being anywhere near the incident, try to answer a few questions.

Can a teacher take back a recommendation letter? Sure. Recommendation letters are personal statements that a teacher chooses to make about a student's character. They are not mandated or regulated by high schools, and they should be thought of as personal favors. So if a teacher speaks to your outstanding character and then sees evidence that maybe it's not so outstanding, then a teacher can take the recommendation back. This is very, very rare. I don't personally know of any teacher who has done this. You should also know that colleges can also rescind their acceptance if they decide that you haven't kept up your grades or integrity. This is also very rare, but it happens. As much as "senioritis" is normal and I even (sort of) encourage it, you should at no point think that you're in the clear and no longer have to be a good high school student.

Then why are the teachers in trouble? The short answer is that the teacher who rescinded the letter isn't in trouble for rescinding it, but for explaining why she rescinded it. Technically, legally, what the teacher is supposed to do is tell the colleges that she's taking back the recommendation and that the schools are welcome to talk to the student. That's incredibly difficult and frustrating for a teacher. For one thing, you want the schools to know that you take the recommendation seriously and that you're not just rescinding it for a light reason. "It's not just that the student pissed me off one day," you would want to say, "but he was putting up actual freaking swastikas in the school!" Secondly, rescinding the recommendation without an explanation gives control of the narrative back to the student. He gets to explain to the school why you rescinded the letter, and that's maddening. Ideally, the colleges would contact the student, ask his permission to talk to the teacher, and then the teacher would have a chance to explain. But that's ideally, and it would be very hard to hope for the ideal in such a situation.

The other two teachers were reprimanded (the professional version of "this is going to be on your permanent record") for discussing the incident with students. The incident and the resulting discipline were being discussed by students, and teachers apparently wanted to have a meaningful conversation about what was going on. But talking openly about a student's discipline is against the rules.

So, if I might put some words into people's mouths, let me summarize.

Teacher: "I can no longer recommend this student, and I feel it's important to explain why."

Other teachers: "Everyone is talking about this incident, and it's our job to help direct that discussion."

Student: "I'm being penalized twice for the same offense, and the school is making it difficult for me to attend by publicly talking about it." The superintendent of the school district said as much: "The student believed that he was being targeted, creating a hostile environment for him by members of the faculty because of his actions, despite having already been disciplined by the administration."

School administration: "We're also horrified by the swastika, and we disciplined the student. But talking about it publicly--even with colleges--violates FERPA, and you can't do that."

What the heck is FERPA? The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It says that schools must have permission from your parents or guardians to release any information from your student record. Student records include your grades, test scores, and discipline. So my guess is that the school district is saying that the teacher violated FERPA by releasing discipline information to the colleges and the other teachers broke the rules in the way they engaged in conversation. Most school districts and teachers take FERPA very seriously. For example, I worked at a high school where we were encouraged not to say anything about students--even to administrators or other teachers--in email, because it could get forwarded or accidentally sent to the wrong person. If we did discuss students, we were told at least not to put their name in the email's subject line and to avoid using both first and last names. Confidentiality and the law are important. It's very likely you know of a teacher who doesn't seem to follow this, but it's also likely that the teacher stands out as being an exception. FERPA is also why "how come she got a better grade on this than I did?" is a tricky conversation to have with a teacher, because the teacher can't legally talk about the other student's grade with you.

There are all kind of extenuating circumstances and unanswered questions to this case. Did the student's family actually waive FERPA confidentiality when requesting the rec letter? To what extent did the teachers use names and details in their conversations? How responsible are teachers for following instructions about how to deal with a tricky situation before the instructions are actually given? I don't know the answers to any of these, and I don't want to speak for or against any of the people involved.

Swastikas, freedom of speech, political correctness, lawsuits. This is all about Trump, isn't it? No. 

So no matter the intention, displaying Nazi symbols in public is a stupid idea? Yes.

Anything else I should know?

FERPA switches when you're 18 and in college. When you're a legal adult and no longer in high school, the rights of your parents under FERPA go to you. Which is to say that the same law that mandates that your high school teachers must talk to your parents says that college professors can't talk to your parents. When I was in grad school and teaching freshman comp, we got trained on this. When a parent calls and wants to talk about their son's or daughter's grades or effort, you have to tell them that you can't discuss their records. When the parent objects and points out that they pay the bills, you tell them that they can obviously choose if they're going to continue to pay the bills, but you can't discuss the records. I never had to have that conversation, but I was sitting next to a friend while he did, and he literally hung up on the parent who wouldn't accept the message. Sometimes, following the law is fun.


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Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits

Photo by Angela Elisabeth Portraits