It’s Throwback Thursday: when did public schools get caught up in the culture wars?

Today’s entry concludes our “Golden Oldie Throwback Thursday” series. We have been reviewing the Golden Oldie cases that created precedents that are still applied today. We’ve looked at a variety of issues where Golden Oldies are still relevant from student free speech (Tinker v. Des Moines) to issues of personal liability (Barr v. Bernhard). Today, we turn our attention to a more generic issue—when did public school litigation begin to reflect the larger issues in our society?

I think the answer to that is: from the beginning. But we are going to choose a shorter time frame, focusing on the issues and the cases that people alive today can remember.

In 1954, the Supreme Court took our country’s most divisive social issue and placed it squarely into the hands of public school leaders. The case was Brown v. Board of Education. With the stroke of a pen, a unanimous Supreme Court declared an end to racial segregation in our public schools. But declaring an end to this longstanding practice hardly brought it to an end. Decades of dispute, struggle, litigation and violence would follow.

I don’t think anyone in 1954 called the Brown decision part of “the culture wars.” That term came later, but it seems an appropriate designation for the firestorm that the historic decision brought about.  So we designate Brown v. Board of Education as the Golden Oldie with regard to the culture wars.

The culture wars always find their way into the public schools. It makes sense that they do. After all, we all want the public school to reflect our values. The problem is that we do not agree on those values. We did not agree on them in 1954, we do not agree on them in 2016 and we will not agree on them fifty years from now.  Thus it seems inevitable that public school administrators will get caught in the crossfire of the culture wars in whatever format they are taking place.

Today, the most obvious example of this is the fight over transgender students, and particularly, their use of the bathroom and locker room.  This battle is going to go on for a long time, we expect.  It may take a Supreme Court decision to resolve the issue, and even then “resolve” is probably not the best word.  Perhaps “decide” is better.

In the meantime, the best thing that school officials can do to maintain calm in the storm is to rely on good legal advice from a school district attorney, and keep your primary mission uppermost in your mind.  That mission is to serve the kids and prepare them to participate in a free and open society.

We think the Serenity Prayer is a useful tool as well, but we don’t want to push our personal views on you.  Maybe you prefer “Ommmmm……”