Creston, Iowa looks a lot like many small towns in the Midwest. With a population of 7800 it is a pretty average-sized Iowa town. Last week Creston found itself in the news. Five young men from Creston High School decided to post a picture on social media wearing white hoods, waving a confederate flag, and standing near a burning cross. It was a jarring image that found it’s way into newspapers, websites, and social media throughout the country. This is now what most people know about Creston, Iowa.
I have been interested in the reactions to the photo. There is the obvious outrage about the image of five young men dressed as KKK members. There are those who are concerned about the free speech implications and response to the picture. There are those who want to say that “boys will be boys,” and there are those who believe the picture represents the type of racism that lurks just beneath the surface in our country.
In the middle of all of this is a school. The students, staff, and administrators of Creston High School have had to go about the business of education while standing under the unwanted spotlight of people from all over the country. Reporters have been at the high school on a daily basis and wandering the stands at the school’s football games. School leaders are under intense scrutiny regarding the discipline that would be faced by the young men in the picture. No matter what discipline school leaders place on these students they will be criticized. There are people calling for the students to be expelled, there are people who believe the students should be suspended, there are those who believe that “free speech” protects these students from any punishment at all. Almost certainly school leaders will ultimately find themselves in court.
While this situation seems extraordinary, it is just an example of the types of decisions that school leaders face constantly. In this situation the school must balance the students’ right to free speech, the sense of safety for their entire student body, their school code of conduct, what is best for the young men in the photo, as well as what is best for every student in the Creston Schools. If you believe that there is an easy answer for these school leaders, you are wrong. What is particularly ironic is that there are some who will say that schools aren’t doing enough to instill values in our young people and now jump on the school for infringing on the free speech rights of these young men. People want schools to teach character and values to our students, but only if those values align with their values.
This situation is complicated by the times we find ourselves in. We find our selves in a time when our president addresses a KKK/Nazi rally by saying that there are good people on both sides of the debate about racism. We find ourselves in a time when an Iowa congressman proudly displays a Confederate flag on his desk. I promise that the current state of conversations about race in our country doesn’t make the work happening in our schools any easier.
Here is what I do know; the teachers and school leaders in Creston are going to do what they think is best for their young people. That is what educators do. They will be scrutinized, they will be criticized, and they will likely end up with lawyers in their offices, all for trying to make Creston High School a place where EVERY student can learn and feel safe. In the classrooms of Creston High School this week there have been kids studying great literature, preparing a marching band show, solving math problems, and doing science experiments under challenging conditions. Regardless of how school leaders in Creston discipline the young men in that picture, it is important to note that the students and educators of Creston High School are doing what public schools do…learn.