Speech that demeans and diminishes others has no place at St. Albans. The school’s unequivocal stance arises from two beliefs fundamental to our identity.
First, as an Episcopal school dedicated to the spiritual principle that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity, hateful speech is the antithesis of the values that make us who we are as a community. Demeaning and disparaging others is simply not what we do here. Membership in our community is anchored in respect for the principle that we will always treat others with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled.
Second, as an academically rigorous institution committed to fostering robust, respectful intellectual discourse, we recognize that hateful, demeaning speech impairs learning. To fulfill our academic mission, everyone in our community must feel that their voice and opinions matter, that we are all equal collaborators in the process of learning and inquiry, that there is a foundation of trust and goodwill at the heart of all that we do. Demeaning others makes them question their place and their value in our community of learning, makes it more difficult for them to engage meaningfully in community and conversation, and makes it impossible for us to sustain a culture of open, respectful discourse.
We are responsible for helping our students fulfill our expectations and understand more deeply the reasons why they are important to us.
First, through our curriculum in classrooms, assemblies, chapels, and advisories, we seek to educate our students about both the great achievements of our human history and the ways in which our values and aspirations have been compromised by discriminatory attitudes, practices, and systems. We encourage our students to see what is good and noble in the past, while also engaging deeply with tragic episodes in history and the ways in which the problems of the past continue to affect our school and society today.
Through such encounters with the history of racism and discrimination, students acquire a context for understanding why speech that traffics in prejudicial stereotypes and assumptions about historically marginalized groups can cause so much hurt for members of our community today. Words are freighted with histories. And when we use such language, even without intent to harm, we place those on the receiving end of these words in a historical narrative defined by degradation and exclusion, rather than by dignity and belonging. Saying “I was just joking” or “I didn’t mean any harm” does not neutralize the history behind such words and thus does not take away the pain and impact caused by their utterance. At St. Albans, we do not teach this lesson as an ideological or politicized construct. We work hard to help our students understand the deep historical and educational reasons for our beliefs, so that our commitment to eliminating hate speech from our community resonates with them on an authentic human and relational level.
Second, when we educate students about appropriate and inappropriate uses of language in our community, we emphasize that we want them to be thoughtful when they speak, not fearful. We want them to understand where the lines are and why they have been drawn in this specific way in our school community. To do so, we encourage them to ask the following questions:
- Does this type of speech contribute to learning or does it interfere with learning?
- Is this type of speech consistent with our Episcopal values and identity? Or does it diminish our Episcopal values and identity?
Some cases will be clearly on one side of the line or the other. Subjecting a community member to abusive, degrading speech based on their race, religion, or personal identity neither contributes to learning nor honors our values. Respectfully expressing a heterodox, unpopular viewpoint on a societal, academic, or policy issue about which people can and do disagree contributes to learning and is consistent with our values.
In a large, pluralistic school community of almost 600 boys living and learning together across a broad developmental spectrum from 4th to 12th grade, there will of course be complex, context-dependent cases that cannot be decided in advance by reference to any simple formula. Judgement, nuance, and care will be required in these cases, rather than a categorical approach.
This can be particularly challenging because different people react to language in different ways in different contexts. And often when there is a conflict or breakdown in relationships arising from a contested use of language, the students involved may be tempted to seek recourse in one-sided arguments about “free speech” or “hate speech.”
A student invoking the notion of “free speech” needs to understand that neither the First Amendment, nor the mission of St. Albans, confers upon students an unfettered right to say whatever one wants without consequence or accountability. There is no such absolute right in any school community or in any society. Likewise, a student invoking the notion of “hate speech” needs to understand that, while some speech is indeed abusive and will be dealt with seriously by the school, not all expressions of disagreement or uses of language that make us uncomfortable are expressions of hate.
Rather than seeking to resolve complex cases by defaulting to one-dimensional constructs, and the political controversies that accompany them, we will work through these cases with care, nuance, sensitivity to context, and empathy. We want students who feel hurt by something another student said to feel empowered to speak up and seek support in cases where they feel unable to navigate the issue on their own. We also want them to learn how to give others a chance to clarify their comments and to create space for further conversation that may resolve misunderstandings. But when misunderstandings and conflicts arise, it is important that the responsibility not fall primarily on those who were hurt by a comment or utterance. If a student is told that something they said was hurtful or confusing, we expect that student to make a good faith effort to understand why, to listen empathetically, and to work with thoughtfulness and humility towards a resolution of the misunderstanding. We also expect families to embrace and amplify these lessons at home.