For four years, Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) has led the charge on education funding cuts in Pennsylvania so devastating that individual school districts were left asking parents to chip in. While Corbett has softened his position on education funding cuts over the past few months as the November election approaches, at the height of the debate over budget cuts, students at JP McCaskey High School in Lancaster County were encouraged to lobby the legislature on cuts to the budget.
But when Corbett held a press conference at JP McCaskey last week touting a small chunk of funding for school resource officers, students who planned to protest Corbett’s spending priorities say they were intimidated by their school administrators into backing out.
“As soon as they found out that we were going to protest they said that we were not allowed to come and that we did not have the permission anymore,” said Brittani Carr, 17.
Carr and several fellow students had planned to hold up signs, with messages about Corbett’s push to fund other priorities like the now-invalidated voter ID law, prisons, and fracking, while making drastic cuts to education. One read, “diplomas not handcuffs.” Another said, “Corbett cut public education funding while increasing prison funding. Don’t be fooled.”
“I didn’t like the idea that he was coming because it’s like, if I’ve been stealing money from you for four years and then all of the sudden I give you ten dollars, I didn’t want it to be seen that our district was welcoming him,” said Therese DeSlippe, a senior at McCaskey.
Carr and DeSlippe were told that if they protested, they would be uninvited from Corbett’s remarks and would face consequences for cutting class, including suspension.
DeSlippe and Carr are both active members of their school community and had achievements to lose. Carr is the school board representative from her school and might have lost her seat. DeSlippe is on the softball team and might not have been able to play in her final game. A third student who planned to protest was set to give the graduation speech, and was told that would be put at risk by her protest. So although they felt they had a right to protest, they opted not to go forward with their plans for fear of missing high school moments they could never regain later.
In response, school district representative Kelly Burkholder acknowledged that “the District did not take into account providing an opportunity for students to personally express their opinions directly to the Governor.” She said Superintendent Pedro Rivera “has directed leadership to be more mindful of our socially-conscious student body to express their views on important social and political issues.”
The students had learned about their First Amendment rights from their teachers at McCaskey. And when Deslippe was told by an assistant principal that she would face consequences for protesting Corbett, she invoked the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which held that schools may only restrict student speech when “the students’ activities would materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.”
“Students aren’t sure what they’re allowed to do now,” said DeSlippe. “People are confused about whether we have free speech but as the Tinker case says, we don’t leave free speech at the door when we come here.”
What confounded DeSlippe and Carr most of all is that their school is known for its robust civic engagement program — a program they say has bred their love for their high school.
“This year I took a government class which sparked a lot of my interest in politics,” said DeSlippe. She said she learned being a good citizen means not staying quiet.
“I guess there is a disconnect in the sense that our teachers teach us to be engaged and ask questions about when we don’t understand and invoke our rights and take responsibility when something’s going on and then when we take responsibility the principals don’t like it,” said DeSlippe.
Carr, a student in the LGBT community who also wanted to ask Corbett about his derogatory comments comparing gay marriage to incest, even attempted a Plan B that was also thwarted. She said after she agreed not to protest, she obtained permission to attend the press conference. She was selected as one of the students who would stand behind Corbett during his remarks, and hoped in exchange she would be able to ask Corbett a question, in what she called a “once in a lifetime chance.”
But five minutes before the event was set to start, she said she was pulled from that group because she was wearing jeans with holes in them. And another group of students who tried to take the signs and bring them to the protest were stopped midway to the event and told to return to their classes.
“It made me feel some type of way,” said Carr. “I love McCaskey. Don’t get me wrong. But … they want us to get involved. And as soon as we tried to, they throw things back at us.”