Suburban Civics Lesson: Keep Your Mouth Shut

Morton West’s Preferred Type Of Campus Gathering

Like a lot of us, sixteen year old Matt Heffernan noticed something was wrong. Unlike most of us, he did something about it, and he is paying a dear price.

The junior at Morton West High School in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn took part in a demonstration on school grounds last week. It was a peaceful sit-in protest against the illegal war in Iraq and the presence of military recruiters at Morton West.

As reported in the Nov. 7th New York Times, the Berwyn police on the scene found nothing wrong with the protest.

But somehow, that wasn’t enough for Berwyn school district superintendent Ben Nowakowski. He felt the police had missed a dire threat in 25 students peacefully speaking and singing. Dr. Nowakowski decided a 2007-style civics lesson – a crackdown – was in order.

Police officers were on the scene, and Berwyn’s police chief, William Kushner, said no arrests were made. “It was all very peaceful and orderly,” he said.

But at the end of the school day, Matt said, Dr. Nowakowski gave the remaining protesters disciplinary notices stating that they had engaged in mob action, that they were suspended for 10 days and that they faced expulsion.

“I was shocked,” said Matt, 16. “We had the sit-in. So I had mixed feelings of confidence — of a job well done — and fright, because my whole educational future is at risk.

The civics lesson continued, according to parents, when Nowakowski’s staff ensured that none of the right students were subject to this risk before he struck:

Parents also complained that deans, teachers and coaches singled out certain athletes and honor students and persuaded them to drop out of the protest.

Rita Maniotis, president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, said the school called her husband to say that their daughter, Barbara, a junior, was participating in the protest and that he should come to get her. He did so, and she was suspended for five days. But other parents were not called and not able to intervene, Ms. Maniotis said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to the punishment doled out,” she said.

The word from Heffernan’s family is Nowakowski’s lesson isn’t over. Not only did the school move to insulate the right students from the crackdown, now the families of the 25 remaining protesters without such cozy insulation are being pressured to “give up” Heffernan and hang the entirety of the disciplinary action on him.

So let’s review the good doctor’s lesson:

  • Accomplices to an illegal war are allowed on campus, but legal, peaceful protest is mob action.
  • Work within the system to speak your mind and face destruction of your academic future.
  • Be anywhere near someone who peacefully speaks his mind and risk your academic future as well.
  • Unless you’re an athlete or otherwise politically useful. In that case, you get a pass.

Dr. Nowakowski’s teaching may be more welcome than we might think. Assuming his aim was to demonstrate how things are done in Burma, China, North Korea, Chile, Cuba or Russia, he gets an “A” grade.

But if he’s forgetting that this is the United States, where we take a dim view of repression, coercion, favoritism and runaway authority, then he gets an “F”.

UPDATE: Some recent coverage of the Morton West High story

1 Response to “Suburban Civics Lesson: Keep Your Mouth Shut”

  1. 1 ECH
    November 8, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    I’m undecided if your last sentence is framed in sarcasm or optimism. I hope it’s optimism, because I’m all out. Keep up The Lords work.

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