When Washington Capitals player Joel Ward scored a game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins in April, fans of the losing team unleashed a series of racist insults via Twitter. Tweeter after tweeter referred to Ward as the N-word and expressed outrage at the idea of a black man (Ward has Barbadian heritage) excelling in hockey. I mean, come on, that's like a black athlete excelling in tennis or golf or skiing or swimming. Oh, wait. That's been done already. Anyway, some of the tweeters spitting vitriol at Ward after the Capitols' victory were underage, and their schools chose to discipline them for their hateful online antics.
Richard Safier, superintendent of Gloucester schools in Massachusetts, punished the students who tweeted hate speech by suspending them from extracurricular activities and sports programs. "Such misconduct contradicts the values and standards of Gloucester High School and the Gloucester Public Schools as a whole," he stated of the disciplinary action.
Was this the right move for the superintendent to make? Writer John S. Wilson, an African American, doesn't think so. Wilson argued in a Friday column for CNN.com that Gloucester school officials overstepped their bounds by punishing students who engaged in hate speech off campus.
"Words indeed do matter," Wilson said. "But censorship matters even more. When public schools begin to punish children for what they say or don't say - absent doing so on school property or with the school's equipment or express sponsorship - we're no longer on a slippery slope, we've already fallen and may not be able to get up."
Wilson went on to say that the students' parents were the only authority figures in this case with the right to take action. I understand his point but don't entirely agree. I believe it really does take a village to raise a child and that school officials used the Twitter scandal as a teachable moment to let students know that racism and hate speech absolutely won't be tolerated. Certainly, the offending students' classmates and teachers realized the role they played in racially disparaging Joel Ward. It would be irresponsible for school officials to go on as if these students' racist Tweets hadn't made national headlines. Taking action against the students also teaches them about good sportsmanship. These kids will suffer tough losses in sports and in life, and they must learn not to react by resorting to hateful name calling or bullying.
I can't imagine Wilson would argue that Gloucester Schools should look the other way if these students called a black classmate the N-word on Twitter. Would the fact that they hurled the epithet at home on their family computer really excuse the school from taking action? Today, we expect school administrators to take a no-nonsense approach to bullying--be it online, off campus or on campus. The bullying these students engaged in following the Capitals' win not only embarrassed Gloucester schools but also the Boston Bruins specifically and the National Hockey League generally.