Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnp

The unease that the Trump era has brought to polarized communities worldwide broke open at Yorktown High School last week. It became a lesson in deconstructing how words get interpreted.

The clash at my alma mater started when teachers became disturbed by recent harsh language from some students they saw as offensive to minorities. The teachers composed a colorfully printed sign listing seven values they considered inarguable.

Yorktown “Patriots know,” it said: “Facts are not political; Diversity strengthens us; Science is real; Women’s rights are human rights; Justice is for all; We’re all immigrants; Kindness is everything; We are Yorktown.”

The signs, which teachers are authorized to post voluntarily in their offices and classroom whiteboards, stuck in the craw of senior John Piper. After failing to persuade fellow Republican Club members to protest, he worked with his parents to complain to the administration, the school board and radio station WMAL that the sayings are politically biased.

On Feb. 14, Piper went national and told his story on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show. Carlson, with no one present to rebut, called the statements “the sneakiest kind of propaganda.” Piper agreed, noting that the administrators at one point agreed to remove the signs but changed their minds.  “There’s a serious double standard here,” Piper said, portraying the science statement as an attack on rightist positions on climate change, for example. “Conservative ideas would never be accepted” on school signs, he said.

Students are not authorized to put personal statements on walls unless approved by an activity sponsor, I was assured by Principal Ray Pasi. (His pre-planned retirement was announced Thursday—unrelated to this episode, according to School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen.)

Pasi, after reviewing countywide guidelines and updating Yorktown’s own policies, backed the teachers, though he apologized in a public letter.  “We live in a challenging and sometimes difficult political climate,” he observed.  “We sincerely regret any distress this may have caused our students, parents or anyone in the Yorktown community.”

Schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos told me “the school board had many conversations” about the signs at Yorktown. The conclusion was that the message is consistent with Arlington schools’ Mission, Vision, and Core Values statement, she said, supplying chapter and verse of guidelines for students and another for employees that “prohibits endorsements of specific political candidates and/or political parties, but does not prohibit discussion of policy or political issues.”

A physics teacher, Deborah Waldron, wrote the board to explain each statement, saying much forethought had gone into them (authors rejected “Black Lives Matter” and “Love Trumps Hate” as political). “The phrases were meant to focus on our need to be a true community where everyone is respected, valued and supported.”

Forty-one speakers came Thursday night to address the board. Some parents said the signs made conservative students uncomfortable and denied their rights to an “apolitical school.” Students detailed offensive comments that circulated after November’s election such as “gay rights are for fags” and “immigrants are terrorists.” One blamed the administration for a slow response.

Junior Christopher Wells, who spoke on behalf of “oppressed people” and invoked the civil rights struggle, told me “there’s tension” at Yorktown, worsened by freewheeling use of social media.

One parent, who described herself as a former Republican staffer, commended the “professional educators” for creating the controversy as “an opportunity to learn.”

***

If you still read Sunday comics and enjoy Patrick Reynold’s “Flashback,” get ready for an Arlington reference.

His latest panel drawing of historical events showcases “Andrew Ellicott’s Survey Party” camping out in 1791 while drawing the boundaries of what became the District of Columbia. The field team, which included chain men, ax men and laborers, also relied on famed astronomer Benjamin Banneker.

Both Ellicott and Bannaker, a free black, have Arlington parks named for them, each containing one of the 40 boundary stones. Ellicott’s is at the Falls Church-Arlington border at West and Arizona streets, Bannaker’s in East Falls Church at Van Buren and North 18th streets.