How much decorum should parents expect from their children’s high school principal? Should she have to commit to a dress code? Should she be permitted to share her hobbies or her tastes in music, literature, and movies with the students in her school? What if her choices conflict with the faith observed by some of her students’ families?
A principal of a public high school in the Niagara region of Ontario, is a big fan of heavy metal music. Her favourite band is Iron Maiden – she even uses a version of the band’s name on her license plate. She posted a photo of herself on a social media site where she is making a hand gesture frequently used by heavy metal fans. The gesture supposedly emulates devil’s horns.
For context, it is significant to know that the community in which this principal works is largely Christian and that the school’s history is closely connected to that community. Prior to becoming a public school, the school was a private Christian school. While the school has changed hands, the community history remains.
A petition calling for the principal’s removal on the basis of her support for satanism was signed by more than 550 people and soon received media attention in Canada as well as in a number of other countries.
Should this principal have known better? Should she have been more sensitive to the people who live in the school community? Among other things the petitioners said that the principal “knows full well what she did was simply inappropriate, unnecessary and not professional but has yet to publicly admit so and is willing to allow people to believe a completely different story, making very real concerns seem petty.”
However, the principal’s school board stood up for her and another petition calling for her to remain garnered more than 20,000 signatures. Despite, or possibly because of, her choice in music and her bright purple hair, she is a very popular school administrator.
While this story has a happy ending for this particular principal, and could even be seen as downright silly, imagine how it felt for the individual at the centre of the fuss.
We have a habit in Canada of patting ourselves on the back and saying “See? The system worked,” whenever a challenge to someone’s freedom of expression does not result in a penalty. But did it?
The principal took down the social media post that celebrated her favourite band. Was she responding to the sensitivity of the people in her community who are worried that the devil is going to infiltrate their schools? Did she see herself as a bad influence on her students?
The bigger question is what would have happened if this principal were less popular? She had the benefit of her students, teachers and school board believing her to be a good person who is creating a “safe space,” and spreading “nothing but love and kindness.”
I think we should worry that her freedom of expression was only protected by her pleasant personality and her popularity. Some very effective school administrators are not so well liked. What if they were “caught” promoting an art form that was more controversial than heavy metal music? Should her employment depend upon what the community thinks about her personal taste?
It is not difficult to imagine a very different ending for this kind of story. Imagine if the principal favoured an author whose writings have been called racist or was photographed with a celebrity who has been accused of sexual misconduct.
The important question in my view is how much should a school official’s employment be imperilled by their choices in art? What if we examined the quality of arts education in our schools, rather than worry about a principal’s personal taste?