03 May Some questions about a student’s rights vs a school’s rights.

The story of a bright young man’s struggles with his high school of choice, Faatuatua Christian College, raises for me, some interesting questions. Especially as I have been a student at a parochial school (for a religion that was not my own), and also a teacher at a parochial school.

These questions include:

What is the line between the right of a private parochial school to require certain behaviour, speech (and even thoughts) of it’s students – and the rights of a student to their freedom of speech and expression?

When one chooses to enrol in such a school, are you agreeing then to at the very least, not openly challenge that school’s ideological foundation? Not point out on social media what one thinks are the fallacies and flaws in their religious dogma? By signing up to go to that school, aren’t you bound by certain expectations and ideals that certainly weren’t kept hidden from you before you enrolled? How can you then be surprised and upset when the teachers/school don’t like it when you point out in religion class that ‘No, man is not the head of the woman and women are not subservient to men…’ and more? When you advocate that Christianity is a western tool of colonisation and oppression?

But maybe it’s not about expressing opinions that go contrary to the status quo? Maybe it’s about HOW one asks those questions and shares those challenging views?

My daughter attends the LDS Mormon high school here and has an exceptional English teacher who was fine with her giving a speech to the class on her chosen topic: Why lesbian, gay and transgender youth need our acceptance, love and support.  LGBT rights is not something that our church is known for, but my daughter asked permission ahead of time to speak on the topic, and the teacher granted her the platform to do so. I’m thankful the teacher made this choice. It allowed my child to share on an issue which she feels strongly about and now even though she attends a school that often teaches things she may not agree with, she is willing to listen and be open-minded, be respectful of others and their beliefs. I suspect though that if my daughter had been openly correcting the teacher and trying to argue her point of view on her first week of school – then the teacher would have been a lot less willing to engage with and dialogue with her.

Finding such teachers is difficult though. And creating learning environments that welcome a range of views and even different religious beliefs – is tough. This is Samoa and already students are entrenched in a system that often requires that young people learn best when they are silent and attentive. Not questioning and challenging. Looking back at my education here as a child and then as a teenager, I was blessed to have a rich wealth of teachers that encouraged us to question, critique, debate and discuss. It helped that my parents also encouraged that at home. Teachers who were authoritarian and who saw questions as a challenge to their authority, were the minority exception for me. And for that I’m thankful. But I do know there are many teachers who DO feel threatened when a student is (what we like to term…) ‘fiapoto’. Was that a factor here in this situation?

I have never attended or taught at Faatuatua Christian College, but I have heard many positive things about the quality of the education they provide. Seeing many former students rally to support their school in this tough time, and also sharing their memories of their education there – it’s clear FCC has through the years, done an exceptional job of nurturing young minds of Samoa. How they respond to this young man’s critiques will be interesting to see.

A final question – how about when a parochial school’s religious beliefs infringe on more than freedom of speech and expression? The LDS Mormon schools the world over, require that their students sign an Honor Code which they promise to live by. This includes guidelines on what they call, chastity and modesty. Single students are not to have sex. This means that when a Yr 13 student gets pregnant, than she is expelled immediately. (If the school can find out who the father of the child is, and if he is also a student, then he is expelled also. Oddly enough, more girls are expelled under this rule than boys…I wonder why?) Expelling a student from school because she is pregnant is a direct violation of the CEDAW Convention (Eliminating discrimination against women) and denies that young woman the right to an education. But then again – her pregnancy is very physical, glaring evidence that she has broken the school’s Honor Code, ‘sinned’ and breached their reigious principles. I had an administrator say to me, “How can we keep a pregnant student on? She is a bad example to the other students we are trying to teach.”

Whatever the answers are to these questions, I hope the parties concerned in this recent case, can find some positive solutions. What can our youth learn from this? What can we parents take away from it? What can our schools and teachers learn about how to better guide, challenge and inspire our youth?

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