Note to readers: This editorial has been updated since last's night school board meeting.
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The recent Westonka High lunchroom incident that prevented some students from playing in a key hockey game raises numerous unanswered questions — beginning with what really happened. As this editorial was being written, those questions seemed likely to make for a lively school board meeting Monday night.
This certainly isn’t the first time that a group of teenagers got a little rowdy and noisy in a school cafeteria. Exactly how did this particular youthful outburst merit multiple suspensions? And why are school officials being so secretive about why they believe the horseplay posed a safety threat?
It all started on Friday when, as part of a class project, a few students taped their classmates doing the “Harlem Shake,” a dance that has become an Internet sensation. The teens were filming in the school cafeteria at lunchtime when, as school officials describe it, “things got out of hand.”
As a result, 15 students were suspended for two days, and some were ticketed by local police for disruptive behavior. Some outraged parents justifiably cried foul and said the punishment didn’t seem to fit the crime. In response to that community pushback, school officials over the weekend reduced the suspensions from two days to one.
Still, that decision came too late to make a difference for the hockey team. Six players were suspended just hours before a crucial playoff game Friday night; school rules state that a suspended student may not participate in any school activities. Without those players, the Westonka team lost Friday night, ending its season.
As of Monday morning, a school official stood behind the decision, arguing that the chaos in the cafeteria was a punishable offense. Mound Westonka High School Principal Keith Randklev told an editorial writer that the students’ behavior violated school rules.
But on Monday night, Superintendent Kevin Borg apologized to a crowd of 250 people for suspending the hockey players. He also said that activities director Dion Koltes had been put on leave while the matter was being investigated.
The fact that on Sunday, district officials had so quickly reduced the original penalty suggests that even they thought it was too harsh, raising questions about their initial judgment. In addition to reducing the suspension time, school leaders also asked Minnetrista police to rescind the $75 tickets that were given to students for engaging “in riot like behavior.”
Randklev says that school officials have video showing that the incident posed a safety threat for the 275 who were in the cafeteria that day.
But that’s not the same video that most of the public has seen. In student videos that circulated on the Internet, teenagers are shown dancing on tables and seats, jumping off them and making a lot of noise. But they do not appear to be throwing anything, hurting anyone, vandalizing property or otherwise doing anything illegal.
Adding to the mystery, school officials refuse to say exactly what the students did wrong. Randklev said only that the actions of the suspended students jeopardized the “safety and well-being” of others. He added that officials have other video, shot from a different perspective, that shows how dangerous the situation could have been.
The principal said that the dancing alone was not the problem; rather, other things done by students made it an unsafe situation. However, he declined several times to say what those actions were.
If they indeed have video evidence that supports their disciplinary decision, school officials should share it at the very least with the suspended students and their families. Those accused and punished for a violation have a right to see and hear the evidence against them. And officials should share more information with the public to help citizens understand why the punishment was necessary.
The discipline in this case may or may not be justified. But a poor lesson is taught by a climate of secrecy in such matters.
Absent that evidence and a thorough investigation, it is understandable that some parents and students are upset about even the reduced suspension. It’s not enough for school officials to simply say “take our word for it” without providing more proof.
An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).