As the school year kicked into full gear last fall, administrators had a busy few weeks of interfering in students’ endeavors and expression.
Quinn Killy, the assistant principal for school life, revoked his approval for the homecoming dance’s theme after a student complained that rodeos aren’t inclusive. Yom Fox, the new high school principal, asked the organizer of Highlighter Assassin to change the game’s name, so it began as Highlighter Elimination. A week later, athletic director David Gillespie announced that teams needed authorization for coordinated hype-building outfits.
Those episodes were not aberrations. They point to a bureaucratic culture of disregarding students’ expressive autonomy—and contribute to a school-wide culture that stifles open debate, discourages originality and devalues students’ voices.
All of which not only undermines the education that students can get by sorting out meaty, real-life questions with one another; it undermines the credibility of an institution that professes a longstanding belief in students’ ability to do just that. “Children are capable of acting on their own behalf,” Head of School Russell Shaw writes in his welcome letter on the GDS website. “We refrain from extinguishing students’ independence by solving problems for them.”
Violations of that principle did not begin this year, but they appear to have escalated under Fox, who announced her arrival by telling seniors on a class trip in August that the customary run-in on the first day of school could involve “no nipples, no navels, no buttcheeks.” The bizarre trifecta of anatomical no-nos provoked its rightful share of outrage at the time, but Fox never disavowed the notion that students cannot be trusted to determine how to dress appropriately.
The principal later told the Bit she “probably” should have worded her comments differently. It’s worth considering a full quote by Fox: “Did I hear something that suggested that the seniors would come into the Forum partly naked? Yes. Was that concerning to me? 100 percent. What I didn’t want to happen was an Augur Bit article that said on the second day that Yom is principal, she’s having to talk to kids about a lack of clothing.”
She seems to have felt a duty to police how students express themselves, fearing scrutiny for failing to do so—a fundamental misunderstanding of the GDS spirit that sadly set the tone for the school year. But there’s a hidden reason for hope: Fox leaned toward a restrictive impulse to avoid the imagined risk of pushback, so real pushback against restrictiveness carries the promise of changing the calculus.
Some people will agree with the outcome of administrative interference in one incident or another. The substantive questions they raise allow for multiple viewpoints. Should the rodeo homecoming theme evolve following a complaint, and given the country’s rich history of Black cowboys? Is the widely used name “Highlighter Assassin” too violent for GDS? Should a particular team choose a particular psych for a particular game? Should seniors make their big entrance in the nude? (Okay, maybe that last one was already off the table.)
But no one wins when administrators substitute their own deliberations, judgments and opinions for those of the very students GDS’ time-honored philosophy demands be taken seriously. Everyone who cares about this special place—students, parents, teachers, alumni—should demand better from its well-meaning, hard-working stewards. After administrators have repeatedly told students what they cannot do or say, it’s high time that the community stand up for what GDS stands for and tell the powers that be that they have gone too far.
As an editor of this newspaper, I pushed for school leaders to formally guarantee The Augur Bit’s editorial independence, arguing that student press rights would enormously benefit the entire community. Administrators rejected the effort last spring. This year, they have dragged their feet even on more modest proposals for reform.
But that’s not what this essay is about. Less than a month away from graduating from the school I adore above almost all else, I want to turn the spotlight on a broader problem. It strikes me as the biggest challenge the community faces but, due to the status quo’s nature, talks far too little about: administrators’ hampering of students’ free expression and debate.
In March, I experienced it firsthand as one of the organizers of the inaugural GDS Integration Bee, a live calculus tournament. To attract spectators, we arranged for a video announcing the qualifying mathematicians. Senior Max Kaminski, who made the video, proposed using the 2013 song “Black Skinhead” (or “BLKKK SKKKN HEAD”) by Kanye West (now Ye). It seemed like ideal background music, evocative of the sports-hype vibe we wanted to ironically emulate for a math competition.
Here’s where the story turns Orwellian: When my fellow organizer junior Ollie Alfonso-Frank sent an all-school email linking the video on YouTube, the administration decided to remove his email from the inboxes of every student and teacher—so they could no longer tell they had received the Integration Bee update in the first place.
Talking with me afterwards, Quinn Killy mentioned two reasons for the email’s erasure. First was the language in the “Black Skinhead” segment, including such lyrics as “fuck every question you asking,” “300 bitches, where’s the Trojans?” and lines with the words “shit” and “ass.” The GDS handbook says students may not “use inappropriate language or images in email, web pages, videos, or social networking sites.”
What does “inappropriate” mean? On the surprise Hopper Holiday, three days after Alfonso-Frank’s axed email, the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—which includes one use of “fuck,” five uses of “bitch,” 24 uses of “shit” and 10 uses of “ass”—played in the Forum for community members to see and hear, whether they wanted to or not.
So it is hard to believe that administrators would have turned to their extreme enforcement mechanism, making the email disappear, were it not for the second reason Killy raised with me, Ye’s rabid antisemitism. Honest to Adonai, as the Jew who approved the song choice, I feel no pang of disrespect when I hear an antisemite’s voice in a video for my event. I feel an immediate pang of disrespect at the thought that my ability to separate Ye’s work from his bigotry might be an illegitimate view to act on at GDS.
My experience aside, unsending Alfonso-Frank’s email sent its own message: that the student body, and even the faculty, can’t handle some curse words in the music of a video that still got nearly 500 views in 24 hours. Perhaps worst of all, administrative intervention precludes precisely the sort of activism and debate a GDS education should unleash. If any students took issue with the use of a Ye song, they could have spoken with us, or even urged a boycott of the event. But no—adults had the situation under control.
When two parties sincerely disagree, it’s a sign that there’s probably an interesting conversation to be had. At GDS today, it’s also a sign that an administrator may well pick a side and impose it before the conversation can begin. That is not how things should go here. And definitely not now, when, as Russell Shaw rightly said on a podcast recently, students must learn “to listen to different perspectives in order to be able to participate effectively as citizens in a democracy.”
Last March, The New York Times published an editorial headlined “America Has a Free Speech Problem.” It cited polling showing that Americans increasingly shy away from voicing potentially unpopular opinions. The left and right, the Times noted, are both guilty of growing ideological intolerance. “At the individual level,” the editorial said, “human beings cannot flourish without the confidence to take risks, pursue ideas and express thoughts that others might reject.”
Nowhere is that truer than in a school. Yet the culture at GDS today shuns thoughts that diverge from the prevailing progressive orthodoxy, and conservative viewpoints are next to nonexistent among assembly speakers and guest workshop instructors. Here’s the thing: GDS’ founders meant for it to be a liberal school. Not liberal in the sense of politically progressive—liberal as in open-minded, devoted to civil liberties, opposed to censorship.
The community tilts overwhelmingly to the left, and so do the restrictions, like heading off any possible insensitivity in the word “assassin.” But “no nipples, no navels, no buttcheeks” sounds an awful lot like the uptight traditionalism of textbook conservative dress codes.
None of the infringements bear any resemblance to the pedagogical philosophy pioneered by GDS’ founding director, Aggie O’Neil, who wrote in a set of 1954 staff meeting notes, “Kids should get to the point of feeling that whatever they say or feel or think is not stupid and is worthwhile because they think it.” Let’s take O’Neil at her word: There’s something sacrosanct about what students have to say, something profoundly admirable about educators who teach them and then trust them, even let them make mistakes.
In first grade, when we first studied the civil rights movement, teachers encouraged me and my classmates to stage a sit-in in the principal’s office to protest a faulty water fountain. Now, the trusting, empowering posture towards students baked into the school’s trademarks is slipping away beneath the surface. The open campus, for instance, means that students can leave it—which they sometimes may need to do to have an open conversation.
Administrators have lately only doubled down on the worthy goal of preparing students to be active American citizens. They devoted four all–high school sessions last school year to the Discussion Lab, an offshoot of the two-year-old Civic Lab with the goal of developing skills for constructive discourse. But the attempt to engineer debate—with no follow-up this school year—rang hollow in a community whose leaders have a habit of kiboshing opportunities for debate to arise naturally.
As he often does, Shaw has the perfect words to reinforce my point. In a 2019 blog post, he wrote, “It turns out that in solving some problems for our children, we often create others. A child who is used to having problems solved by a teacher or parent can quickly grow dependent on this help. They may begin to think they lack the capacity to create their own solutions, and they don’t learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes along with struggling.” Amen.
On the Monday after the 2022 D.C. cross country championships, my fellow captains and I, along with our coach, found ourselves in the office of the athletic director, David Gillespie. The Friday before, the women’s team had dressed as insects, while about half of the men’s team sported crop tops for our pre-meet psych. At issue was our failure to seek advance permission for the outfits.
It was a dressing-down for dressing up—at a school where the need for shoes had once been seen as the sole rule about what to wear. To dress the same as the peers with whom they play, say, soccer or basketball, students now confront a special dress code, whose pre-approved themes include “Pajamas—Don’t Sleep on us,” “Chefs—Cooking up some trouble” and—amusingly inconsistent with the homecoming episode—“Rodeo (attire—hats, boots., no props).” Spontaneity goes out the window.
But the student body is an eclectic bunch of teenagers who sometimes naturally like to make waves, whereas the administration is filled with risk-averse adults.
Students today—liable to ask one another “Will Yom shut us down?” rather than “Are we doing the right thing?”—might feel incentivized to push the limits. But, more pervasively, the specter of getting in trouble erodes students’ interest in taking risks or self-advocating, two items on “A GDS Student Will.” Quirkiness gives way to conformity, boisterous debate to hushed remarks. Apathy sets in. And the most marginalized students, often the supposed beneficiaries of paternalistic intervention, may lose the most confidence to speak up.
As far as I can tell, the impulse to restrict students is limited to administrators. In 14 years at GDS, my teachers have lifted up students’ voices, not shut them up—and nurtured in me the outspoken streak that propels this essay. The gap should come as no surprise: On one side are school employees who spend much of their time talking to one another, away from regular accountability; on the other are those who spend their time talking with students.
Gladys Stern, the high school’s first principal and GDS’ third head, would reportedly tell new faculty members unused to being called by their first names that “being called Mr. or Mrs. gives you authority for exactly 24 hours.” If students found their teacher either unknowledgeable or uncaring, Stern would say, “there are a lot of disrespectful ways a kid can say mister.” The essence of the first-name custom is lost when administrators, backed by nothing but the authority of their titles, foreclose debate by diktat.
If anything, administrative censoriousness affects teachers and students together. After 44 years at GDS, the retiring theater director Laura Rosberg faced the first outright veto of her chosen show when Yom Fox, in her first months as principal, blocked the musical Cabaret. Fox has yet to explain her decision to students in the theater program, but it sent them a disquieting signal: They could not handle the complexities of Cabaret, which is set in Berlin amid the Nazis’ rise—but don’t worry; their principal had their backs.
I have been fortunate enough to attend GDS since I was four years old, and I will miss this place deeply when I’m gone. The lead-up to graduation is an exciting time, but it also leaves me with a twofold sadness—about my leaving GDS, and about how the attitude I’ve seen at the heart of the school already seems to be leaving it. Having addressed plenty of the symptoms of GDS’ institutional affliction, let’s turn finally to its causes and solutions.
Administrators are too preoccupied with the school’s public image. They generally bar clubs from operating social media accounts that could, God forbid, give glimpses of school life beyond the communications office’s careful curation. Maybe a messier school is harder to sell to the donors on whom GDS depends (or the applicants it mostly rejects), although the proclamations of student autonomy sound nice on the website.
COVID clearly contributed to the culture of restrictiveness. During good-faith efforts to steer the school through the pandemic’s first year, administrators became rule-makers and students either rule-followers or rule-breakers. The goal of protecting the community from infectious disease warranted abnormal levels of administrative control, but now-lifted precautions left the residue of an ends-justify-the-means mentality.
Also in 2020, administrators vowed to rededicate themselves to promoting inclusivity and combating racism at GDS, after a deluge of posts by Black students and alumni on the Instagram account @blackatgds drew attention to the school’s shortcomings. The reckoning left administrators eager to show their anti-racist bona fides, even through edicts that put off students more than persuading them to be thoughtfully sensitive on their own.
Add to all of that a national political climate short on tolerance for differing views, and it looks like GDS is simply riding the trends.
But that’s precisely what GDS, whose founding bucked the entrenched trend of school segregation, should not be doing. Change is good and inevitable, but what’s happening more and more at GDS would be better termed a debasement of what makes the school special. We cannot let the zeitgeist wipe out GDS’ timeless values. Preserving them will take proactive steps.
Administrators should stop intervening in what students choose to say or wear or how they choose to manage activities. That means doing away with the sports psych restrictions. They should acknowledge the past perversions of GDS’ philosophy, apologize for them and publicly commit to getting out of the business of policing students’ expression, setting the school culture on the path to healing.
From his school-wide perch, Russell Shaw has rarely taken a personal role in restricting students’ judgments. But it is largely up to him, as the senior-most keeper of a precious inheritance, to set a new tone inside the administration that leaves no room for its other members to make censorious decrees. Members of the Board of Trustees, likewise obligated to look after the school’s values, must hold Shaw and his colleagues accountable for any future violations.
Meanwhile, if administrative interference tends to put an end to discussion, let’s now start one as a community, including everyone who cares about GDS. Are we okay with where our beloved school has gone?