The Jacksonville School Superintendent today released a statement explaining why there was a heavier police presence after an alleged racially motivated social media video was made public.
District 117 School Superintendent Steve Ptacek said in the statement that his office and Jacksonville Middle School administration were informed that there had been threats of retaliation for the videos, stating that “Regardless of the content, we cannot allow physical retaliation to happen at school. We requested an increased police presence to help ensure a safe day at school for all students.”
Ptacek said that staff members have been meeting with students who were hurt by the comments made in the videos “helping them work through their anger, frustration and pain.”
Ptacek said he received several calls throughout the day yesterday from concerned parents about the increased police presence at the school and that “Unfortunately, we live in a time that, understandably, equates increased police presence with major, school-wide threats.” He said that he wants to make sure parents know that there was not “any discussion of violence that would put their child in jeopardy.
Ptacek thanked the Jacksonville Police Department for their assistance and stressed in his release that the district is “not allowed, by law, to discuss, disclose, or detail the specifics of confidential student information. This includes names, discipline results, and many other items that members of the community want to know.”
Ptacek said that the district will continue to work with students that need help and support following the circulation of the video, and that this event will be used as an instructional moment with all students.
Ptacek is welcoming parents with thoughts on the matter to contact him directly via email or Facebook messenger, that “Social media is the root of this problem, so please don’t use it to create further distress in the community.”
District Superintendent Ptacek’s full statement-
I know that many in our community have seen, read about, or heard about the recent video that was posted of JSD117 students making extremely offensive statements. The comments made are absolutely inappropriate and violate the core belief of equality that serves as one of the key foundations for the entire structure of JSD117 and our community.
Before I address the video, I want to address yesterday.
We were not in session on Wednesday so the district could not deal with this issue then. I apologize that I was dealing with some type of flu Thursday, so I could not be as actively involved with the issue yesterday as I would normally have been. I was in communication with JMS yesterday, and I felt confident that the major concerns we had were being addressed.
JMS administration and I had two main concerns for yesterday. First, we were informed there was going to be retaliation for the videos. Regardless of the content, we cannot allow physical retaliation to happen at school. We requested an increased police presence to help ensure a safe day at school for all students. We have an outstanding relationship with the Jacksonville Police Department and I thank them for their assistance.
Second, we knew that many students were hurt by the content of the videos, so our staff needed to meet with them, helping them work through their anger, frustration, and pain. We have an outstanding group of teachers, counselors, psychologists, and social workers that did have important meetings yesterday. We will continue to work with individual students. Please let us know if our staff needs to meet with your student to help them work through this ordeal.
Throughout the day, I received several questions about the increased police presence. Unfortunately, we live in a time that, understandably, equates increased police presence with major, school-wide threats. I empathize with parents that see an increased police presence and immediately are concerned about the safety of the school. Many of the questions were coming from parents that probably hadn’t even seen the video yet, and were unaware of the issue, so I asked Mr. Barlow to address that increased police presence by stating that the presence did not reflect any threat to school safety.
I wanted our parents to know that there wasn’t any discussion of violence that could put their son or daughter in jeopardy. That is a true statement. Being concerned about the safety of individual students is very different than being concerned about a larger threat to the general school community.
The message he sent was not received well by many in the community. He added language designed to build confidence that a very concerning day, ended up productive. It was. Our staff had many positive meetings with students and used this event as an opportunity for growth, but I do see how his choice of words did not convey that message, and portrayed that the school was not taking this matter seriously.
Before I go any further I need to be very clear. We are not allowed, by law, to discuss, disclose, or detail the specifics of confidential student information. This includes names, discipline results, and many other items that members of the community want to know. Over my many years as a Principal and Superintendent, I cannot count the number of times I have been asked, “What is being done?” and the reality is that school personnel cannot answer that question.
I can discuss the law and how it applies to online speech. This is a general discussion and is not related to this specific event.
The question of a school’s ability to discipline speech has been covered in multiple important Supreme Court decisions over the last 50 years. This is such a legally sensitive topic that I delayed today’s response until I could discuss the issue with our attorney.
It isn’t as easy as people think. We need to take into consideration multiple questions. These include: Did the speech take place at school? Were any threats made? If so, were the threats directed toward specific students?
Here is an excerpt of the response from our attorney:
As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, Students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. In order for speech to be subject to discipline at school, it must materially and substantially disrupt the school day. While the school can categorically prohibit lewd, vulgar, or profane speech at school (Bethel School District v. Fraser), such extension does not continue beyond the school day. The school district is unable to reach into the community to discipline students for behavior unrelated to school which causes no or insufficient material and substantial disruption at school. Even speech which is objectionable, racist, and hate-filled is not subject to discipline by the school if not associated with or created at school.
Schools commonly become the central place for community concerns. However, our ability to apply controls are often only legally available if we can directly relate the action with the school. This is the law.
I will note that extra-curricular activities have usually been viewed differently since they are not a mandatory function of the school day, and those that participate consent to a code of conduct. But in some recent cases, this difference has been challenged.
We, school districts, get frustrated that so often people look to us and ask, “What are we going to do?” when we don’t have any actual authority. We get frustrated when our government passes legislation increasing our responsibility to, basically, “parent” students, and then the courts tell us we can’t.
I do know what we can do. We can make sure we work with students that need help each day we have them. We can take events like these and use them as instructional moments with all of our students.
In summary, we are taking this seriously. We will use this to improve.
If you have any thoughts, please contact me. I do ask that you email me directly or use Facebook messenger. Social media is the root of this problem, so please don’t use it to create further distress in the community.