Is Learning How to Flex Your Rights Inappropriate for School?

Two Virginia teachers have recently been suspended for using materials that teach about police encounters in a twelfth grade government class. The materials included the Flex Your Rights documentary Busted: The Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Police Encounters, and a flyer on dealing with police made by the anarchist group Crimethinc. The administrative action was taken after a parent complained to the school and to the police.

The offending materials include such advice as: do not physically resist police officers, do not needlessly escalate police encounters, understand when you can legally refuse a search, and keep control of house parties. It would seem very practical to include them in a class on government for 17 and 18 year olds.

By describing the citizen’s relation to the police officer, the lessons of the class are made personally relevant for the student. The materials offer lessons on an important arm of government, which students are more likely to deal with than they are with a Congressional committee. The materials could also be used as springboards to foster discussion. Exposing students to opposing viewpoints on what government is would likely encourage the student to think critically, and expose them to different views. This is especially important for individuals who are just being given the power to vote, the option to enlist in the military, and are at a point in their lives in which they are likely to face experiences and environments that were previously unfamiliar to them.

The concern over using these “unauthorized materials” shows the hostility for freedom that exists in the government-controlled schooling system. Everything that is to be discussed and learned is supposed to be approved by a political committee, not by the individuals involved in discussing and learning. Government school students are expected to submit to every search and every demand made by authority. Such a system would naturally view the offending materials not as attempts to make everyone understand what the rules are so things can go more smoothly, but as a threat. The fact that the administrative action was initiated by the complaint of one parent shows the influence that an authoritarian minority can have over what future generations are permitted to think about.

And individuals should think a lot about police. The story of the suspension comes from the Twitter feed of Cop Block (, which provides new stories about bad behavior from police officers almost every day. Criminally violent or negligent behavior by cops often goes unpunished, while teachers who use unapproved videos and flyers are suspended.

Undoubtedly, there are police officers who are very concerned with protecting the lives and freedoms of individuals – but that is not their job. Police are tasked with protecting and serving the interests of power, in the specific role of enforcing whatever laws those in charge demand. The pathologies of authoritarian power structures are common, and a clique-like mindset combined with administrative procedure discourages officers from exposing or trying to check the bad behavior of others. Audio recordings of the NYPD recently acquired by the Village Voice show a system concerned with anything but protecting and serving the residents of the precinct.

Punishing teachers for teaching about the law and the student’s relation to the law exposes the runaway hypocrisy, caste structuring, and authoritarianism of the state. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but only some are allowed to know the law; you must submit to those of higher status than you; and rules are made by rulers, but only the ruled must strictly follow them.

This C4SS commentary has been featured in: The Portland, Oregon Skanner

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