Guest Post: Phillip Buckley on Challenging Nostalgic Visions of the Public School Students of Yesteryear

Phillip Buckley is an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and an interdisciplinary scholar interested in law, rights, childhood, and politics in the context of education. His current work focuses on the relationship between law, childhood, and citizenship. He spent five years in Serbia, Ukraine, and Poland, teaching and working with higher education faculty on various projects related to legal English.

In my article, “Conceptions of Childhood, Student Rights, & the Citizenship Crusade: Meyer, Pierce, and the Pledge of Allegiance Cases,” I examine a set of legal opinions through the lens of childhood. In the article, I argue that the opinions shed light on how judges understood childhood toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. However, this set of cases also provides insight regarding the relationship between public schools and their students over this period. Although not the focus of my article, one of the most interesting aspects of this project has been reading about the sorts of student behavior educators attempted to restrict and what circumstances led students and/or their parents to reject such restrictions. Here, I highlight two examples.

Dritt v. Snodgrass (1877): Fighting for the Right to Party

Over a century before the Beastie Boys proclaimed, “You gotta fight, for your right, to parrr-ttty,” seventeen-year-old Joseph Dritt did just that, suing his teacher and the local school board for “wrongfully, illegally, oppressively, willfully and maliciously, and in abuse of their authority” expelling him for “attend[ing] a party composed of the young people of said town, and participat[ing] in the amusements thereof.” In his complaint, Dritt claimed that “he had a right to attend said party, and that the defendants had no right or authority to dictate to or control him in the premises.” Four of the five judges on the court agreed that the school board had overstepped its authority (with one deciding the case on other grounds). However, for these judges, the policy was problematic because it “invaded the right of the parent to govern the conduct of his child,” not because it invaded Joseph’s right to party. This case provides an example of how judges’ conceptions of childhood may reframe a legal conflict from one that pits the school against the student to one that pits the school against the parents.

Despite this reframing by the Missouri Supreme Court, the facts of the case and the wording of the complaint suggest that it was the student, Joseph, who saw his rights being restricted, not his parents. This conflict, involving a school, a student, and parties, sheds light on the lived experience of children and adolescents at the time and reveals some fascinating details. First, that the school was so concerned about student parties. Second, that the school felt it had the authority to control students’ behavior outside of the school by forbidding students from attending such parties. Finally, that a student resisted this authority and that his parents supported his resistance. In the end, Joseph’s victory preserved the right to party for future generations of Missouri students. More seriously, the decision in Dritt served as justification for future legal decisions that curtailed the authority of schools over students. Interestingly, although the court struck down the policy, neither Joseph nor his parents sought to have him readmitted to the school, so it is unclear if he ever finished.

Pugsley v. Sellmeyer (1923): Fighting for the Right to Use Talcum Powder

The facts included in the opinion in Dritt don’t tell us exactly how concerned Joseph and/or his parents were about Joseph’s right to party. Perhaps their complaint was motivated by the fact that Joseph had been punished (and a desire to recover damages for that wrongful punishment) rather than by a desire to assert that students had a right to party or by a concern that the school was overstepping its authority. In contrast, the facts included in Pugsley v. Sellmeyer, decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court half a century later, are clear. In that case, the student, Pearl Pugsley, was concerned with challenging the following rule: “The wearing of transparent hosiery, lownecked dresses or any style of clothing tending toward immodesty in dress, or the use of face paint or cosmetics, is prohibited.” As retold by the court, Pearl “infringed this rule by the use of talcum powder, and the teacher required her to wash it off and told her not to return again with it on her face.” Undeterred, Pearl returned to the school “a day or two later,” again wearing talcum powder. Upon being told she could not attend school if she violated the policy, “she refused to submit to or to obey the rule, and was denied admission to the school.”

In other words, Pearl knowingly resisted this particular rule and risked punishment for doing so, suggesting that she was motivated by the principle at stake in the case. This is further supported by the fact that the policy was rescinded after her appeal was filed and yet Pearl did not drop the case. (The lower court had agreed that the rule was arbitrary and unreasonable but had nonetheless ruled against Pearl because she had not first gone to the district board with her complaint against the principal.) However, the Arkansas Supreme Court, with one dissenter, upheld the policy as a reasonable means of “promoting discipline in the school” and imparting “respect for constituted authority and obedience…an essential lesson to qualify one for the duties of citizenship.” The dissenting judge scolded the others on the court: “‘Useless laws diminish the authority of necessary ones.’ The tone of the majority opinion exemplifies the wisdom of this old proverb.”

Students’ Resisting School Authority

These two cases, along with others from this period, provide examples of students challenging school rules. They provide evidence against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s assertion in the 2007 Morse v. Frederick (“Bong Hits for Jesus”) case that “in the earliest public schools, teachers taught and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed.” If Thomas’s description of the “good old days” is accurate, Joseph Dritt and Pearl Pugsley were outliers. However, these two cases suggest that Justice Thomas may have oversimplified the history of the relationship between public schools and their students.

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