#TakeAKnee: A Lesson in Conflict Resolution

#TakeAKnee ramped up this fall as NFL players—some with the support of team owners—engaged in various forms of validation for the action first taken by Colin Kaepernick, even as the blowback they faced intensified. High school football players who took a knee also faced opposition, as did their supporters. As the Detroit Free Press reported, this issue has affected players, coaches, administrators and fans:

A Free Press confidential survey of the state’s athletic directors revealed that 92% of respondents (179 of 184) were not in favor of high school athletes protesting during the anthem, and 74% (95 of 128) said prep football players were only protesting because NFL players were doing it.

In one high-profile case in Michigan, a private high school disciplined four African American players, leading several to transfer. To be sure, as a private school it was within its purview to take the action it did.

Under long-established Supreme Court case law, public school students are protected against mandatory conduct related to the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance. But is there a right to play football so that by extension, the knee protest would be protected? A federal appeals court whose jurisdiction includes Michigan, ruled that athletes’ speech was not protected by the First Amendment. In that case, football players circulated a petition to have the coach fired.

While the free speech rights of public school football players remain unsettled at best, are there public policy and educational consequences of pushing back on peaceful student protest? As educators who believe in the value of civic education and engagement, what can we bring to this moment? How do we constructively wade through with our students the beliefs and dismay of people on both sides of the issue?

What can we do?

#TakeAKnee provides the opportunity to engage students on an issue of interest to them and reinforce their rights and responsibilities as citizens. It also provides a good case study in productive approaches to conflict resolution.

When leading a discussion about students’ rights to free speech, it’s important to draw the distinction between the private and public spheres. The NFL football players are employees, for example, and their conduct is not subject to First Amendment protection. Students in private and parochial schools are in the same boat.

As noted, with regard to public school students, courts have drawn a distinction between speech in the classroom and on the playing field. But even within the classroom as this backgrounder explains, speech can be regulated to prevent disruption to the learning environment and to encourage “socially appropriate behavior”. Ask your students to analyze scenarios like the following against these standards:

Mitsy wears a T-shirt that proclaims: I oppose the war on ISIS. A teacher whose husband is in military special forces complains and Mitsy is sent home and told to change her shirt.

Mike gives an assembly speech that is full of vulgarity. He is suspended for 3 days.

Or for a more complex fact pattern based on an actual case:

Anytown High School permits its students to leave class to watch as the Olympic torch passes by. Fred joins some friends to watch on the sidewalk across the street, off school property. As the torch passes Fred unfurls a banner reading "BONG HITS 4 JESUS". To no surprise, it is caught by a local television camera. The principle runs across the street, seizes the banner and suspends Fred. In a close 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the suspension.

If you discuss #TakeAKnee actions, the focus can be on constructive conflict resolution. Learning to Give has a lesson plan that helps students learn to communicate respectfully with those with different opinions and to seek common ground or compromise. Students help craft a method of conflict resolution, building a valuable skill set. Be sure to continue the conversation with Learning to Give using #LTGChat.

#TakeAKnee, presents a great opportunity to connect civic education and engagement to issues your students are talking about in school and on social media.