Last month the School District of Philadelphia hosted a screening of the controversial film “Won’t Back Down” (read Helen Gym’s review of the movie here) shortly after the School Reform Commission took unprecedented action to revoke the teachers’ contract. Students conducted a protest of the film screening. It went downhill from there. According to this video, adults at the screening, including School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms, yelled insults at the students. One attendee chanted “Lock them up.” You can view a statement by the Philadelphia Student Union here. This is our statement.
As parents of students in the Philadelphia public schools, we were extremely concerned in hearing about remarks made to student protesters by adults in attendance at a School District function last month. Upon viewing the recent videotape published by the Philadelphia Student Union, we believe this incident is an embarrassment to the School Reform Commission and the School District of Philadelphia. At the very least students are owed an apology and the District should re-affirm a policy on appropriate conduct for school leadership.
While some individuals may have been surprised or upset by the student protest, it does not excuse the language used by some adults in attendance at a District family event, nor should it excuse the District from not taking a clear stand on protecting students’ rights and dignity.
We are extremely upset that outrageous remarks like “lock them up” were not immediately shut down and addressed at the meeting by District officials. No one should condone a school-to-prison mentality demonstrated in such comments directed toward youth – least of all District officials. After all, if students were asked to leave for inappropriate conduct, those individuals yelling “lock them up” at the very least should have been told to leave as well.
We are shocked that any SRC member would publicly demean and attempt to humiliate students by stating they “probably attend failing schools.” First, any blame should not be placed on students. In fact, if anyone could be blamed for the situation we find our public schools in, it is the leadership of the SDP and the School Reform Commission. Therefore, any School Reform Commissioner who demonstrates through their words and deeds that he or she may not have compassion for or understanding of the situation our students and public schools face lacks the appropriate perspective to tackle the difficult job of making things right.
Second, we must end the use of the term “failing schools” as an insult used to silence and demean communities of color. This term has been relentlessly abused in many contexts. Any public official ought to know better and be better than to direct such purposeful insults toward anyone, most of all young people.
Finally, Parents United for Public Education upholds the constitutional right to peaceful dissent and protest – even if the protest is disruptive, loud, or people disagree with it. The film “Won’t Back Down” was made to be purposefully controversial. Therefore, it should not be surprising that there might be vehement disagreement with the showing of the film the week after the SRC took unprecedented, and not clearly legal action. The student protest was peaceful disruption. No violent action was taken by students, and when school police asked the students to leave, they left. District officials have an obligation to exercise appropriate restraint when faced with public protest in a public building at a public event. It was not appropriate and, moreover, not even necessary to lose your cool over protected speech.
The District and SRC’s follow-up statements defending Commissioner Simms’ conduct were neither reassuring nor productive. Far from defending these comments, we would think both the SRC and the District would want to distance themselves from the ugly statements made in the video. Instead, we ask the SRC and District to issue an immediate apology, meet with students, and publicize a statement that both clarifies and upholds appropriate code of public conduct for District and state officials.
Finally, we want to be clear that the problems with the School Reform Commission extend far beyond Commissioner Simms’ behavior on one day. The SRC consistently fails to recognize that the heartfelt and engaged voices of parents, students, and staff passionate about our schools and the future of education in our city is neither a barrier nor an inconvenience. It is the key to putting our system back on the right track.
Parents United for Public Education