Editorial, March 27, 1995, Post Dispatch


Members of the Ferguson-Florissant School Board may not think much of Cissy Lacks' teaching methods, but they show great promise in her subject matter - creative writing. The statement they issued Friday to justify firing her created a skewed interpretation of the case and a justification that was designed more to protect their own authority than to further what should be their main focus - the education of the students in their care.

The issue, of course, is Ms. Lacks' allowing students in her creative writing class to use obscenities in a video. She defended their language and her teaching style as the best way to bring out how they feel and to have them create out of what they know best. Ferguson-Florissant deplored the language and Ms. Lacks' encouragement of it, insisting that the issue was not censorship but the district's responsibility to control how its teachers teach.

That authority is undeniable. In dispute is how it should be exercised. Did Ms. Lacks willfully defy a clearly defined policy against obscene language in the classroom, one that would bring the same career-ending consequences to any teacher who acted in a similar manner? Or was she singled out because of her unorthodox style in the classroom?

The board's statement is filled with innuendo and misdirection. It brands her teaching style one more "fitting for the 1970s students who were beginning to break free from a structured social system" but "wholly inappropriate and inadequate in today's social climate." It then equates her students' "violently profane" language with the destructive force of violence in any form. It says that as she tried to "befriend her students, she abandoned her responsibility to set standards." It claims she violated board policy, though the policy in question deals with student misconduct, not teaching activity.

To get the most from her students, Ms. Lacks would have been wise to move beyond their raunchy language and show how to express similar emotions in more acceptable prose. But they might not have reached step two without going through step one, and according to the wisdom of the Ferguson-Florissant School Board, step one can get a teacher fired. That message is now loud and clear enough for everyone in the district - and elsewhere - to get the message: Play it safe. Such self-censorship is just as harmful as the more blatant kind, and the ultimate losers will be students who might never be inspired by the safe, standard ways.