If You Talk the Talk, You Should Walk the Walk
Many years ago as a young news reporter, I learned what happens when a government agency attempts to violate their employees’ right to free speech. They live to regret it. Almost without exception, it pays to be painfully honest when faced with a sensitive situation—such as the death of a student.
In particular, the murder of Skylar Neese. She’s the Star City, W.Va., girl whose two best friends have been charged with killing her.
One girl has already pled guilty to second-degree murder; the other one faces criminal court come February. Since Free Speech Week ends tomorrow, it seems the perfect time to discuss why University High School officials have issued an edict requiring everyone to stay silent about Skylar’s murder. Apparently because victim, admitted murderer, and accused murderer attended the problem-plagued school together. (In addition to relocating students to the new high school after the school year began, there has been a body found on the site, an indoor flood that closed the new building, and a gas leak, among other problems.)
I had to laugh after reading reporter Jim Bissett’s article in yesterday’s Dominion Post. Speaking specifically about UHS, he says classrooms in Monongalia County “aren’t shy about launching intellectual exploration of freedom of speech and other liberties many citizens take for granted—and other societies don’t have.”
“Intellectual exploration of freedom of speech”? What a joke! Exploration is more than talking the talk; true exploration requires walking the walk. It means understanding a person’s right to exercise free speech—and giving them the opportunity to do so.
And what “other societies” is he referring to? He must have been talking about places where the government and those in power restrict speech. You know, “other societies.” Unfortunately, from what I’ve been told, speech isn’t really free at University High School. Many, many students have said talking about Skylar’s murder is forbidden on school property, and at least three adults have said teachers are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they do talk. That’s because, they say, Principal Shari Burgess has decreed as much. (I tried to contact Burgess before posting, but she did not respond.) But UHS staffers also say Burgess told them county board of education officials created the mandate.
Which it may or may not be true. A couple of people who work for the school system have told me it isn’t. So I went to the Mon County Board of Education office on Sept. 23, where I spoke to a redhead named Beth in Superintendent of Schools Frank Devono’s office. Citing FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), the federal law that prevents educators from discussing matters (specifically pertaining to a student’s educational records—a right that can be waived if student safety is in question or if legal authorities request certain information) that could violate a student’s right to privacy, Beth said school officials probably can’t talk until after the trial.
And when I asked her if it’s true the directive to remain silent came from someone at the board level, Beth had no knowledge of it. I told her I would like to find out for sure, and in addition, I wanted to talk to Devono about events that occurred at UHS before Skylar’s murder. Beth said she would inquire and get back to me. To date, I haven’t received a return phone call.
While digging for details about what led to Skylar’s murder, about the social factors and friendships that affect today’s teens, and about how this tragedy has affected not just our teens but their parents, I’ve learned not to take a refusal to talk personally. What I do object to is learning that an educator is in fear of losing his or her job for no good reason.
What’s wrong with saying how Skylar’s death affected you or your students? Where’s the harm in speaking up about how it’s changed the way you teach or why you think we as a society need to pay more attention to our adolescents? Or that we’re missing the mark completely, when it comes to what our values are?
Then there’s the well known fact that UHS has lost several students through violent means in recent years: Skylar was the third murder victim that I’m aware of. There has also been at least one suicide, another student who died in a car accident, and several suicidal students who may or may not have gotten the help they needed. If an entire student body is being silenced about Skylar, then what else might they be silent about? And what dangerous undertow is all of this silence creating?
One parent I interviewed said something profound: If students and teachers are not allowed to talk about what happened, or what led up to it, it stands to reason the police investigation was also affected—because facts about the case could have come to light much sooner, had people been allowed to talk about what they knew or suspected.
This directive also makes me concerned that some students might be loathe to talk, for fear of any educational retribution they believe they might face. Or actually have been told they would. If so, that’s alarming.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case because, by far, the Morgantown-area teens who are close to this case have been more open and willing to talk than almost any adult. Or it could be a teenager’s natural state of fearlessness that’s enabling them to be more honest than their elders.
Ironically, it would seem that UHS teachers agree that free speech can help prevent things like a student’s death. Take teacher Donovan Riggleman, who was quoted in the DP piece: “The free-speech tragedies, he said, are the cases of students who have committed suicide because of such bullying,” Bissett wrote when paraphrasing Riggleman, who was actually talking about cyberbullying. (Unless someone out there can shed some light on it, Skylar’s death doesn’t appear to have as much of a connection to bullying as once thought.)
But do UHS teachers really agree with Riggleman? Do they really believe free speech can help prevent a student’s death? Maybe he’s in the minority. Or maybe it’s only held to be true in cases of cyberbullying. And what about after a student’s death? Should teachers talk about it then—or should they keep quiet, like they’ve been instructed to do? Does anyone really still believe restricting free speech to preserve silence is a good idea?
I don’t think they do.
Editor’s note: Award-winning editor Geoff Fuller (author of Full Bone Moon) and I are writing the book about Skylar Neese’s murder, which will be published by BenBella Books in Fall 2014. If you have information about the case, please contact us using the form below.