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How middle school students used a recent Supreme Court case to examine their own school rules

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The story of Mahoney Area School District v. B.L. goes like this: high school sophomore doesn’t make the varsity cheerleading squad. She vents to friends on Snapchat after school: “Screw school, screw cheer, screw everything” -- only she doesn’t just say “screw” -- you get the idea.

The 14-year-old, Brandi Levi, still gets suspended from the JV cheer squad for a year. The case is about whether what she said is protected speech that the school shouldn’t be able to punish.

While the Supreme Court oral arguments began this past spring, many students were returning to the classroom. Matt Wood teaches middle school civics in West Chicago.

The pandemic has made many of us reconsider the way things have always been done. COVID and a recent Supreme Court case created the perfect opportunity for his students to re-evaluate school rules.

He says last spring, at first, schools wanted to make sure students were comfortable back in the building. That often meant relaxing school rules, like letting them wear hats and jackets in class. But soon, it became an issue and administrators asked teachers like Wood to enforce the dress code again.

“My brain was like working overtime. I was like, ‘Wait a second, we have this case about what you can and can't do outside of school with the cheerleader,'" he said. "'I have students who are questioning the school’s authority to tell them what to do.’ What better place for middle schoolers to be in this cyclone of ‘What are my rights?’ in the circumstance?”

Wood asked his 7th-grade classes “What do you think would have happened in this case if it was our school?”

“And they're like, Well, Mr. Wood, we don't even know," he said. "We didn’t even know we have a dress code!”

So, he had them dive into the handbook for themselves.

“And they, of course, notice right away that there were some things they, first of all, weren't aware of and, second of all, there are some things that upset them," said Wood.

Students found that -- unsurprisingly -- the rules had much more to say about what girls were allowed to wear, including a ban on pants with holes in them, which was surprising.

“And so then I said, ‘alright, well, are we different? Are we different from any other communities?’ that ‘is the grass is greener’ concept," he said.

They examined neighboring schools’ handbooks and saw that the grass, at least as it pertains to school rules, was not greener at all. Other schools were more explicit about which styles and lengths of clothes were banned, whereas West Chicago left some room for interpretation.

At the same time, Wood’s classes were still discussing the arguments in the “angry cheerleader” case. He says lessons he learned in a microcredential program called “Guardians of Democracy” helped him teach the kids how to have a structured discussion and how to take action. So, the question came back to “what would have happened if this happened at our school?”

To answer that question, Wood had to bring in the powers that be.

“So we had a different administrator for each of my class periods come in," he said. "The students were responsible for giving the admin the rundown of the case; what the classrooms thoughts were on the case; and then they guided questions to the admin to get the administrators to really discuss what they would have done.”

Six administrators came in and, in judicial fashion, Wood said “We had a three to three split.”

Three administrators agreed with students that it was wrong what happened to the cheerleader in the Supreme Court case and the three others said they’d have done the same thing.

“My favorite," he said, "was one of the administrators who came in with a strong opinion left saying, ‘you know, I might have to rethink what I think now.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah!'"

There was even some disagreement among the students too. Wood says the administrators were surprised to find some students actually agreed with them.

Wood was most proud that he was able to lead conversations with students that culminated in the students feeling validated and like they were heard.

As an Illinois Civics Instructional Coach, it’s something he wants to help other teachers with as well.

“I think there are a lot of teachers," said Wood, "who are both justifiably afraid of conversation today but are also poised and in a position to do good work and help America rediscover the value of discussion."

If you’re still wondering, in June -- long after students had left for the summer -- in a narrow decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the cheerleader, Brandi Levy. It was a monumental decision for student free speech.

This year, Matt Wood in West Chicago is still using his Guardians of Democracy training to help a new group of students discover the value of discussion.