The fallout from the assembly demonstrated the complexities schools wrestle with — perhaps more than ever in today's political climate — to protect students' free speech and create an environment in which all opinions are safely and respectfully heard.
"We worked really hard during the election cycle as well as now to have the school be a neutral place where students can receive and share ideas without fear," Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann said . "I look at this particular exchange as something we're going to have to get better at — being able to talk about this in a thoughtful way, being able to listen and receive views that might be different from us and knowing it's not the school's job to say (something is) right or wrong, but it is the school's job to help students get better at the ability to discuss and approach complicated issues in a thoughtful way."
Some students and parents perceived the assembly as an inappropriate "indictment" of Donald Trump, who was sworn in as president that morning. Herrmann said this perception is mistaken — the assembly was organized months in advance, and the fact that it fell on Inauguration Day was a logistical coincidence. (Given Gunn's bell schedule, it was the only block of time that week that could accommodate two full assemblies, one for freshmen and sophomores and the other for juniors and seniors.)
Representatives from Gunn's student government were in touch with both speakers beforehand and gave them minimal guidelines beyond sharing their personal stories, Herrmann said. The goal was to "show people who are proud of their roots" and "that who they are makes them powerful regardless of the hardships they have faced," said organizing student Minna Mughal, one of the school's diversity commissioners.
Before the event, the organizers saw a sample of a similar spoken word piece from senior Ebbie Banks and an excerpt from Lythcott-Haims' memoir. Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen for Stanford University and author of "How to Raise an Adult," has given talks at Gunn previously.
Banks' piece, "My Skin," recalls being told by his fifth-grade teacher that the possibility of fulfilling his dream of writing a children's book on black history was "like zero" and how he turned to writing to "relieve the curse of being a large black male who appeared to be 'quite threatening.'" But he came to be proud of his racial identity, "trusting no one who tells me I can't do something."
Lythcott-Haims, who introduced her speech as a reading from her memoir, talked about her identity and experiences as an African-American woman and reflections on raising a black son, who was in the assembly audience. She referenced fatal shootings of young black men and "pent-up hate" released by the 2016 presidential election and ruminated on what it means to be a "real American."
"The angry disenfranchised whites were set free by the 2016 election, and their pent-up hate kept somewhat muzzled, tamed to an extent for 40 years now spurts out like a hydrant spewing hate across the streets of America.
"Trump won. Black lives DON'T matter," she read.
Chloe Sorensen, Gunn's student body president, said the majority of students she talked to after the assembly thought it was "sobering but powerful." Sorensen appreciated that the school devoted an entire assembly to race. It was the first time in her four years at Gunn that a black student was given the opportunity to tell his story in front of the entire school, she said.
But the student who created the YouTube video, and some parents, strongly disagreed.
"I remember walking out of that gym with friends around me already starting to criticize it," the student said in a separate video he posted this week in which he called himself a "provocateur."
"A multitude of the people whose opinions I speak for are too afraid to speak for those opinions themselves," he said. "Our community claims to preach tolerance, but it's only tolerance for those who agree with the majority." (The student did not respond to an interview request from the Weekly.)
Gunn's student government met this week to discuss their response as leaders, agreeing that "he has a right to voice his opinion, but we were mostly concerned about the way in which he chose to express it," Sorensen said.
Gunn parent Kimberly Sweidy, whose daughter came home last Friday concerned about what she described as a "propaganda speech, with opinions presented as facts," said the school should have clearly communicated to students that they had an option to opt out of the assembly. She, too, said she was concerned about all students' voices being protected.
"There's lip service and then there's reality," Sweidy said in an interview. "They're going to have to better vet the topic of talks and be more mindful and proactive about preventing alternative viewpoints and (providing a) more balanced approach."
Herrmann said the school encourages all students to attend all school assemblies but has "informally" communicated to students that they can choose not to attend and to check in to another supervised location. Sorensen said students are not aware of this option and were told they were required to attend last week. The administration intends to "improve that messaging in the future," Herrmann said.
For Lythcott-Haims' part, she said in an interview that she stands by her speech and would not change it in any way. In retrospect, she could have perhaps further emphasized that as a memoir, her speech represented only her personal, lived experience and opinions, she said.
As a parent and a former lawyer, she said she's a staunch supporter of free speech, including for those whose opinions might be in the minority or offend others.
"I would hope that if somebody comes and gives a provocative speech — provocative meaning it provokes you to think differently ... or pokes and prods at your emotions a bit — that leads to further dialogue," she said. "I think the silence on these issues is contributing to the problems we have and to a lack of understanding and lack of compassion."
Lythcott-Haims suggested the school could have, for example, planned small group discussions for after the assembly so students could reflect and unpack their thoughts with their teachers.
Herrmann said the school strives to provide opportunities for students to "have lively debate without crossing the line of being harmful or hurtful" in their classes and at larger events, like town halls or assemblies.
But when it does cross that line, it is the school's responsibility to intervene, she said. This can be complicated by the fact that many interactions between students happen off campus, on social media.
In this case, soon after the administration became aware of the student's YouTube video, staff checked in with him and his parents, as well as Banks. She declined to share details of the meeting with the student but said that overall, it was "positive."
This is the school's practice when handling incidents on social media that have an impact on students at school, Herrmann said.
"The responsibility that schools own is that if there is a nexus between what is being communicated on social media and an impact at the classroom level, the school administration needs to intervene," she said. They typically contact the students involved in the exchange, whether that's two or a dozen, she said, to "make sure we understand their role, their intent, and we communicate to them if they haven't already been made aware of the impact, intentional or unintentional, that it's had and then respond accordingly."
Responding accordingly can range from removing the social media posts or facilitating a "restorative justice" meeting to punishment, if the posts amount to harassment or bullying.
The school walks a "fine line," Herrmann said, in balancing a student's right to free speech and addressing speech that might be harmful to others.
"Everyone has a right to free speech but not hate speech," she said.
The incident has spawned discussion among students, teachers, administrators and parents. Lythcott-Haims and Sweidy, despite their differences in opinion, have agreed to meet and talk. Both see this as a learning opportunity for the school to model "what it looks like to peacefully disagree with each other," Sweidy said.
Added Lythcott-Haims: If her speech made people uncomfortable, "it's worth investigating why and having that honest conversation about the disagreements we have about various lived experiences.
"That's ultimately what I hope will happen — we'll dare to have these conversations."
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