There’s something I have to get off my chest.
This particular something goes all the way back to the spring of 1997 when I was a second-semester freshman at Chantilly High School here in Fairfax County. It involves internet technology, the first amendment, personal grudges, overreaching education officials, and police harassment. It is a sordid story that ultimately ended well, but it is a story that I never had the opportunity to tell on my electronic soapbox (due to a parent-imposed gag order).
The events between January and September 1997 have had an immeasurable impact on much of my personality, my views on government, my insistence on the rule-of-law, and my desire to be heard. In those months, I learned just how much power a few megabytes of storage on a web server can represent if used correctly. Unfortunately, I also learned that there are people out there who care little for the truth, for respect, or for the rights that we Americans are blessed to have.
I made my first website—creatively titled “Website 1.0!!!”—at the end of 1995. I was in eighth grade at the time. As most first-time web developers are apt to do, I loaded it up with spinning graphics and little in the way of actual content. After all, I was just doing it for the heck of it.
By this point, I was increasingly dissatisfied with the lackluster public education system. I was tired of learning the same parts-of-speech each year. I was tired of being treated like a child. I was tired of busywork homework assignments. I was tired of the patronizing, gibberish rules and the fact that, despite said rules, I still got picked on and harassed by my moronic classmates. In other words, I was not a happy camper.
I didn’t become any happier a camper the next year when I moved up to Chantilly High School; it was the same old bull in a bigger, more populous bullpen. So, I did what any budding internet techie would’ve done—I decided to play activist and put my complaints on the web.
I, with one of my good friends, created the Chantilly Students’ Union—an organization that existed primarily in the form of a website. CSU’s site was a sounding board for what was wrong with Chantilly High. We reported fire code violations. We pointed out regulations (at the school and county level) that were unneccesary, unfair, incoherant, or—in some cases—blatantly illegal. We catalogued instances where administrators or teachers abused their power.
Much of what was housed on CSU’s site was opinion, but none of it was untrue or slanderous. In fact, I reported the fire code violations to the office and gave them one week to fix them. The school did nothing, so I called the fire marshall (who issued several citations).
I believe it was in March or April when I got called to Subschool 3. (Large high schools in this area are separated into administrative subschools which are each responsible for certain subject areas and handle [for guidance and discipline] students within particular alphabetical ranges.) I was introduced to Subschool Principal Mel Riddile (now principal of J.E.B. Stuart High School), who informed me that the CSU website was in violation of school policy and that I had to take it down or I would be suspended. At the time I was not strong-minded enough to stand up to a school administrator, no matter how flagrantly he overstepped his authority, so I went home and deleted the website (with a snippy notice to the effect of, “By the illegal order of CHS Subschool Principal Mel Riddile, this site is temporarily unavailable”).
Thankfully, my parents stepped in and set Mel straight on what the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says (“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”). That a subschool principal had no respect for my opinions and my creativity was bothersome (that’s an encouraging educational environment for you!), but his willingness to toss the Constitution out the window was nothing short of ignorant, criminal malice. Employees of public schools, after all, are ultimately employees of local government and thus bound by the Constitutional limits on government.
So the CSU website was allowed to stay, albeit with a few minor changes (in case Mel Riddile is reading today: “THIS SITE IS NOT AFFILIATED WITH CHANTILLY HIGH SCHOOL”). But that, sadly, was not the end of my troubles.
I had some minor run-ins with top-dog Principal Dale S. Rumberger (who became principal of Westfields High School when they built it and is now principal of the yet-unfinished [and unnamed] ‘south county school site’). Rumberger played the nice guy—meeting with us in his office (at our request) twice and taking our written recommendations for changes to the school’s technology policy. But for all his hot air and blather, Rumberger addressed none of our concerns. Not a single one.
My final—and most unbelievable—incident involving representatives of FCPS skirting their responsibilities or abusing their power actually happened after I left the school system for good. In the summer of 1997, my family moved from Fairfax County to rural Bedford County in southern Virginia. At my parents’ urging, I decided I was going to at least try to make a new start and give Liberty High School (as ironic as the name seemed to me) a chance. Little did I know that a school resource officer representing both Fairfax County Public Schools and the Fairfax County Police Department would have something to say about that.
I got called into Dr. Brenda Cowlbeck’s office—she was the principal at the time—during the first week of school. I was informed that Dr. Cowlbeck had gotten an ominous call from Officer Graham Buck, a police officer from Fairfax, warning her than an ‘agitator’ and an ‘anarchist’ (me) had moved to her school. I fail to see how criticizing the failures, problems, and mismanagement in a public education facility constitutes either agitation or anarchy (after all, I was advocating respect for our Constitution, not ending our government), and I especially fail to see why FCPD saw fit to interject itself into my new start at a new school in a new county.
To Dr. Cowlbeck’s credit, she largely discounted Buck’s ludicrous assertions after a conversation with my father and me. Her leadership at LHS was everything that Rumberger’s and Riddile’s leadership at CHS had not been—encouraging, fair, intelligent, and reasonable. Fairfax County’s overreaching insanity ran the risk of ruining my new start just as it was beginning, but Dr. Cowlbeck made it possible to finish my public education in relative peace.
I tell this story for many reasons.
First, my parents were reluctant to allow me to stir up any more trouble, so I was not permitted to file a formal complaint against Graham Buck (though, had this happened a year or two later, I likely would’ve done it anyway), I was not permitted to tell the story on my websites, and I was most certainly not permitted to name names. I do these things today because, looking back, I believe I should have stirred things up. Riddile, Rumberger, and Buck are all public employees. In return for the job security and good benefits that come with government work, they take on a public trust. Ultimately they answer to me and the other citizens of Fairfax County, not just to their supervisors, the school board, the superintendent, or the police chief. Their failures and indiscretions are indeed public business, and should not be ignored or covered-up.
Second, every time school administrators institute unnecessarily oppressive rules or overstep their authority or violate the law, the students lose respect for them. When students don’t respect the authorities, they don’t obey the authorities. It is no wonder that CHS’s discipline problems were so horrendous. It was not that there weren’t enough rules or enforcement, it was likely that there were too many rules and unfair enforcement. That I, of all people, nearly became a discipline problem is a perfect illustration of what I mean: I broke rules at CHS not because I was a bad kid, but rather as a manifestation of civil disobedience. It was a protest.
Third, little has changed. If you go check out the FCPS Student Responsibilities and Rights document, you will find that blatant violations of Constitutional law are still more a rule than an exception. (Although the parent signature sheet now includes the following disclaimer: “By signing the statement of receipt, parents shall not be deemed to waive, but to expressly reserve, their rights protected by the constitutions or laws of the United States or the Commonwealth and that a parent shall have the right to express disagreement with a school’s or school division’s policies or decisions.” Notice that students are not granted that same right.)
Not only are there blatant illegalities in the document, but it is internally inconsistent. Page 7 states that, “Students may exercise the right to freedom of expression through speech, assembly, petition, and other lawful means and have the right to advocate change of any law, policy, or regulation,” and yet the unconstitutional act of prior restraint is expressly created on the next page! (“In high schools and middle schools, the student government shall coordinate the procedures for receiving and reviewing literature that students enrolled in the school want to display or distribute. In all schools, the material is subject to approval by the principal.”)
Regardless of how enshrined these behaviors may be in county policy, what Riddile, Rumberger, and Buck did to me was nothing short of malicious. My schooling is finished, and I came out with a fundamental disrespect for the public schools and a continuing desire to speak my piece on this site. This is the first time I’ve told this story here, but it is not the only story just like it. Not even close. These things happen every day, and it is time to open up the schools and their employees to public scrutiny (when neccessary). It is time to throw open the windows and really talk about how the public schools are failing and determine rational ways to fix them (hint: 1984 style Big Brother control will not make things better). It is time to consider dissent rather than silencing it. It is time to embrace American values of freedom, rather than rejecting them.
You hear me, Mel Riddile? Dale Rumberger? Graham Buck? Anybody?
Update, 8/28/2011: Mel Riddile is now theat the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Dale Rumberger appears to be the Director of Student Activities for Fairfax County Public Schools (though I was unable to confirm this with certainty). I have been unable to find Graham Buck’s current employment information.