, Gloucester, MA

May 6, 2012

Editorial: Superintendent made gutsy and right call on Twitter haters

For a full week after hateful, racist comments lit up the Internet's Twitterverse, it seemed that Superintendent of Schools Richard Safier and other school officials were understandably grappling with how to handle the sad fact that at least five Gloucester High students — at least four of them athletes — openly spewed chilling racial epithets around the world after the Washington Capitals' Joel Ward, one of the few black players in the National Hockey League, scored the goal that eliminated the Bruins from another Stanley Cup run.

And more than a few folks had to be uncomfortable when two of those players remained with their spring teams last week, representing their school despite posting their hateful comments to the world to see — a world that, thanks to Twitter's openness, made it fairly easy to find that they were from Gloucester and its high school.

But by Friday, Safier handed down decisions that delivered precisely the message that these kids and all of us deserved to hear:

All of those who spewed this vile drivel would, in fact, "lose participation in a sport for a considerable length of time," and any of them with "leadership opportunities in extracurricular activities, or sports," will forfeit any such positions, or chances to hold them.

With those prepared statements, Safier, in fact, made it clear that none of these comments — nor their posters — in any way represent Gloucester High School, its students, its staff, or, by extension, the city and its residents. And perhaps just as importantly, none of them can serve as a captain or in any other "leadership" role, given that anyone who spews this kind of garbage cannot possibly be entrusted to serve as a model or leader for others.

Simply put, the superintendent absolutely made the right call.

From the start, this issue has been a dicey one for the school district — just as it has for other schools and institutions around New England and the country. That's because the students' actions led school officials into murky territory.

For one thing, the comments clearly weren't "tweeted" during school time or from the school or its equipment. Beyond that, as School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope noted, the schools are still working on a social media policy to address potential incidents such as this.

While the tweeters' expressed hatred might be considered a form of bullying black or other minority students in the school, for example, it might be a real stretch to take action under the schools' relatively new bullying policies. And, lest any of us forget, while the students' comments were clearly racist, vile and ugly, they can't, in any way, be construed as illegal. The students clearly have a right of free speech, and it's frankly not against the law to spew ignorant, racist rhetoric — offensive as it is.

To that end, nothing in Safier's statement indicates that the students will face penalties such as expulsion or school suspensions. Yes, the superintendent is emphasizing that the school will launch an educational program focusing on fostering respect for others and appreciating diversity. And all of those involved in this travesty will be required to participate in an extensive program that looks at diversity through personal awareness, skill building and practical activities. That, no doubt, is a good idea.

But at their core, Safier's sanctions have made it clear to all that these students' comments and apparent beliefs — spewed very publicly at considerable embarrassment to their school — cannot wear "Gloucester" across their sports uniforms for some time, and cannot, in any way, be considered a school or team leader.

Good for him.

He has truly made a gutsy decision that deserves school officials' and residents' emphatic support.