Saturday, February 04, 2017

Mandatory Swastika Recommendations

A student in Massachusetts constructed a swastika in the hall. Two teachers talked about it (one by broaching the topic of antisemitism in class, the other in private conversations with teachers and another student); a third rescinded her letter of recommendation for the student (contacting colleges to explain why).

All three teachers have now been disciplined by the school. The first two teachers received disciplinary letters, the third has been suspended from teaching.

This is outrageous. I can -- barely -- wrap my head around some discipline for the two "talkers" on student privacy grounds if (a) they mentioned the swastika-creating student by name and (b) it was not generally known that he was the perpetrator. I still would be very, very dubious, but I can see a superficially not-entirely-frivolous rationale there.

But the suspension of the teacher who rescinded her letter of recommendation is far more troubling. While we don't often talk about "academic freedom" in the context of secondary school, it does exist and this is a great example of it. A teacher's decision to recommend a student for college or a job is an exercise of their personal judgment as academics and directly puts their reputation on the line. There can be no obligation to "go to bat" for a student if the teacher has lost confidence in the qualities that triggered her recommendation in the first place. It is beyond unreasonable to mandate that a teacher continue to back a student who is either pro-Nazi himself or so negligent with respect to the sentiments of others that he just doesn't care about the hurt and offense he causes.

By and large, the story here seems to be that the school district wanted to sweep this incident under the rug and several teachers declined to assist it in doing so. And when the perpetrating student's mother called and complained, the district swung into action to ensure that his not-right to have a favorable recommendation wasn't jeopardized just because he threw up some Nazi symbolism. It's grotesque. The Boston Globe describes the case as "difficult terrain", but it wasn't all that "difficult" until neo-Nazism managed to squirm back into the mainstream.

The teachers here are unionized, and I hope they grieve the hell out of this one.

UPDATE: Yep, the union is interceding on behalf of all three teachers.


Ben Faber said...

I agree with you.
But to game out the devil's advocate scenario, isn't it reasonably likely that there are student privacy concerns with the recommendation rescinder also, perhaps concerns more pressing/severe than in the other cases?
In the 1st place, was it intrinsically a violation of student privacy to send the recision letter to the college without getting consent from the student/guardian first? That's a problem for the academic freedom reasons you indicate, and potentially ends up as protected speech if fully adjudicated, but FERPA is pretty strict, especially concerning minors. Kids/family frequently waive rights to view rec letters, in which case it could be fine to amend the letter in the school files w/o notice, but does the initial request for a letter involve waiving right to view other communications?
Also, how did the teacher know where to send the recision letter? I remember that when I was applying, I asked some teachers to put a letter into my file with the school guidance office, and the counselors then bundled off copies of all the rec letters in the same packet as copies of transcripts and etc once I notified them of my applications to particular schools. So if that practice was in place here, how did the teacher know what schools needed to get recisions? S/he could have the counselor pull the letter from the file for going forward, but that doesn't fix apps that already went out. Does finding out and then sending letters to the schools needing recisions involve acting on privileged info?

David Schraub said...

From my vantage, licensing the initial letter implicitly allows follow-up communications. That has to be right, though I might start explicitly including a statement to that effect when folks ask for letters from me.

I always assumed my recommenders had access to where I was applying. I don't think I've ever written a letter that went out "blind", though maybe it's different in HS. I don't know.