A local high school student, Hunter Cooper, 15, is getting more than his allotted 15 minutes of fame. It happens sometimes when the planets align just so and the event, the social climate and decisions made by certain authorities combine into the perfect public relations storm. And Cooper has found himself in the eye of it. His claim to fame? He wore a rubber bracelet to school emblazoned with a slogan deemed offensive by administrators at Rocklin High School in Rocklin, Calif. The bracelet is part of Keep A Breast Foundation’s breast cancer awareness campaign. The slogan, “i [heart] boobies,” is aimed at raising awareness among young people and if the current media bonfire is any indication, it has done that and more. The uproar in this case, however, has less to do with a school’s right to limit certain freedoms of expression and more to do with the reasoning behind the disciplinary action taken against Cooper by school administrators.
According to a Sacramento Bee story that ran today, Cooper complied with his physical education teacher’s demand that he take the bracelet off, but when the teacher asked him to hand it over, Cooper started to ask questions regarding his teacher’s reasoning. He was told the slogan was demeaning to women and that there had been complaints. According to the Bee, Cooper responded, “If girls feel that way, then why are so many wearing the bracelets as well?” The response he received was a one-day suspension for being defiant. Other news sources tell essentially the same story, including quotes from Rocklin High School Principal Mike Garrison that establish the school’s rationale for the policy and the authority behind it. Schools do, in fact, have a great deal of authority regarding disruptive or offensive expression that would otherwise be protected under the First Amendment. This is not about that; this is about the so-called defiance.
Cooper raised a legitimate question – one that could have easily been answered in a dialogue that would have taught him far more than blind adherence to authority. Granted, this case could well have occurred in such a way that Cooper’s attitude was in fact defiant, that he was not legitimately seeking clarity and he was inviting a confrontation, but as reported none of that is apparent. Cooper is, by most standards, still a kid. But he is at an age when he is beginning to think critically and that should be encouraged. The answer to his question is simple and if it had been provided in a mature manner, he would have learned how thinking critically is applied in one of a lifetime's worth of real-time situations. They could have pointed out his glaring logical fallacy; that just because some women do not find it offensive, that does not make it inoffensive to all women. They might have followed up by citing case law that gives schools authority to limit certain First Amendment rights – or at least the rationale behind those limitations. If Cooper then refused to remove the bracelet (which, by all accounts he already had), they could have concluded the lesson for the day and issued the appropriate disciplinary action. To a young adult, the answer, “Because I said so,” should no longer be sufficient. They should be asking “why.”
Cooper engaged in a losing argument, but the way in which it transpired he could never know it. Indeed, he never got to lose his argument; it ended by force before it began. And force should only and always be a last resort. The school played its trump card way before it was necessary and lost out on an educational experience that could not easily be simulated in the classroom. In the classroom of life the consequences are real - the very foundation of our nation was represented by this single exchange. At some point kids need to be treated as real, thinking adults and when adults in authority squash their questions in an egotistical application of power, what does that teach them? Cooper may well have been motivated by an opportunity to be defiant – to exert his power justified by the righteousness of his cause. Or he may have legitimately wanted to know why he was told to remove what he believed to be nothing more than a sign of support. Either way, the school missed a golden opportunity to do what it is supposed to do – teach.