Imagine, for a moment, a student walking down the school hallway with a T-shirt on that says, “Teachers are blankety blanks!” He or she would be sent down to the office and probably home faster than you can say “repugnant.” And that is as it should be.
Principals have the power to control what messages are displayed in school, to some degree, at any rate. No one student should be able to advertise views that offend other students or teachers. The criteria of offensiveness holds more weight in schools because they are closed environments — all students must attend school, by law; they cannot simply walk away. A school is a community with standards of behavior for its members. Consequently, freedom of speech is curtailed more in the school environment than it is in society at large.
The example above is pretty cut and dry. Any message that is clearly racist, homophobic, sexist or personally insulting is easily spotted and easy to be definitive about.
Not all issues of appropriateness in schools are quite so easy to peg down. Take a recent example: in schools all over North America, including my younger daughter’s school, students are showing up wearing bracelets that say “I Love Boobies!” (You can imagine the face of a teacher who sees that the first time.)
The bracelets are sold by an American organization called Keeping Abreast (double entendre intended). It was founded by breast cancer survivors who want to raise breast cancer awareness among youth. It seems like a pretty authentic, well-intentioned organization. Among other fundraising ventures, they sell the bracelets to raise money, which they pass along to worthy breast cancer-related causes.
But why are preteen boys and girls buying these bracelets? Hmm. I would warrant that the goal might not be just to spread awareness about a disease. Some mischief-makers might like the idea of making their friends laugh at the audacity of wearing a word that most of them cannot say without turning red in the face.
‘Boobies’ is a word that just makes you want to laugh — it’s a silly word. So the bracelets make the boys who wear them giggle. We’re talking pre-pubescent boys, here, not almost grown-up teens. They’re sweetly thrilled at their brush with naughtiness.
Okay, so the boys might have complicating reasons for buying and wearing the bracelets. Whatever their motives, however, I think that the bracelets actually serve their intended purpose —every single girl or boy who wears one of these bracelets is more aware that breast cancer exists and is a threat, and can be less fatal if caught early. How many 11-year-olds do you know that are aware of breast cancer? If these bracelets increase that number, is it a bad thing?
The challenge for a principal, therefore, is complicated. When it comes to freedom of speech, the school shouldn’t ban the bracelets based on criteria such as the purpose of the originating organization, the value of the bracelets in raising awareness of a disease, or their comic value. These things don’t really count if a publicly displayed message is actually offending people. It’s only the offensiveness factor that really counts.
So, is the phrase ‘I Love Boobies!’ offensive? Does it offend you? Personally, I do not find it offensive. And I think a lot of the boys and girls wearing these bracelets do feel seriously that they are supporting a worthy cause. But a preteen girl who is a little more physically developed than her classmates may indeed feel uncomfortable about the whole thing. So too might a female teacher, especially if she suspects the gleeful laughter might be eroding respect for her as a teacher. This is indeed a difficult issue, and I wish the best to the principals having to make the decisions on this one.
Margaret Hoogeveen is a local writer, editor, and mother of two school-aged daughters.
Previous columns can be accessed at Margaret’s blog, http://schoolscribblings.wordpress.com/
Did you enjoy this article? Become a Beach Metro Community News Supporter today! For 50 years, we have worked hard to be the eyes and ears in your community, inform you of upcoming events, and let you know what and who is making a difference. We cover the big stories as well as the little things that often matter the most. CLICK HERE to support your Beach Metro Community News!
What happens when the obvious novelty of this bracelet wanes? What if kids decide to champion ovarian or testicular cancer?
Please know I am in no way trying to minimize the gravity of breast cancer or any other type of cancer. I simply cannot believe we have attempted to rationalize why kids would want to wear I LOVE BOOBIES bracelets.