Seniors at the Frisch School in New Jersey were treated to a surprise in their yearbook this year. An “In Memoriam” page listed more than a dozen names of men and women described as being “just a few of the many, many black Americans who were wrongfully killed by police.” The page was written in the form of an open letter, signed by the student editors of the yearbook. It was addressed to people such as George Floyd, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and ended with a call to the class of 2021: “Let’s change the world for the better.”
The reaction was immediate. “Right away, kids started ripping the page out,” one senior said. “Others were blacking it all out with sharpies.” According to the student, no one knew this page would be a part of the yearbook, but seeing the names of the signatories, no one was surprised either. “Everyone knows their politics. They are trying to speak for us,” he said with resentment, “but no one I know liked it.” He and his friends say they disagree with the letter and its claims. But perhaps more objectionable is the license given to a handful of students to use the class yearbook to voice their personal political views. “This was about them, not us,” he said.
One parent reported speaking to a school administrator, who explained that the original student submission included references to Black Lives Matter that were edited out, and that this reflected an attempt by the school to moderate the message. There was no response, however, to the question of why any political messaging was allowed in the yearbook in the first place.
Frisch parents were upset. Many called the school to complain. A group called “Frisch 4 Truth” reacted with an open letter of its own in the local Jewish Link newspaper. Also titled, “In Memoriam,” the piece mimicked the wording of the original yearbook letter but had a very different message. The names cited in the paid advertisement were those of slain police officers and innocent victims of violence. “Their names are sadly just a few of the many, many white, black and brown police officers, as well as innocent children, who were wrongfully killed by criminals in just 2020,” it read. “This past year, there were 45 police officers killed by gunfire in the line of duty as well as 128 children under the age of 11.”
The anger and resentment the Frisch yearbook page ignited are the sad but predictable consequences of the unchecked politicization of everything. At issue is not even the validity or invalidity of the initial argument set forth in the “In Memoriam” letter the students published. Rather, it is the assumption made by a handful of individuals that their political position on anything had a place in a class keepsake best known for funny quotes and predictions about students’ future career choices. These yearbook editors’ failure to respect their peers’ right to a school memento devoid of political lectures speaks to a failure of personal insight and a lack of humility.
But can they be blamed? Political activism has settled into the cracks of educational institutions everywhere. Many school principals have openly embraced the trend. Children are praised for “speaking out,” even as they have yet to fully understand the issues about which they are speaking. The temptation might be too great to resist for a 17-year-old.
The adults in the room are another matter. More is expected of them. Difficult as it may be, teachers are expected to say “no” to an improper request and to help students understand why using a school forum for their own political agenda is, in fact, improper. They should help children learn that while their interests should be cultivated, so should their sense of the appropriate time and place in which to express those interests. Frisch administrators failed at this essential task and thus opened a dangerous door to future abuses of the school’s educational and communal integrity.
By no account was Frisch described as a contentious, politically divided school, even by those who were deeply angered by this yearbook event. Many were shocked. “Overall, I have been really impressed with the way the school has handled political situations,” one parent told me. “This is the very first thing like this that I have seen here. One of the reasons we chose Frisch over other Jewish day schools is because they don’t engage in woke politics. They stick to education.”
Families are now on alert, worried about what may come. School administrators and faculty made a mistake in the moment that seems small, though could lead to larger problems down the road. Next year, they might find themselves with endless “In Memoriam” pages in their yearbook for everyone from aborted babies to Americans killed by illegal immigrants, depending on the political persuasion of the group abusing the school environment for its own gratification at the time. The result will be a fractured and divided community. Clearly, that was not the intention of school leadership when it said “yes” to this one yearbook page. But it would not be a surprising result.
Those schools who have wisely decided not to join in the corruption of American education through the political activation of minors do themselves no favors by holding their breath and dealing ad hoc with the inevitable instances of controversy as they arise. Overwhelmed faculty and administrators try to do the right thing, but often lack the courage, authority and support necessary to make the right decision. Asking them to deal with this on their own isn’t fair. They need clearly defined policies at their schools that return education to the center of the institution’s mandate. They need rules to point to when a student, or parent, asks to use any school forum to promote his or her personal agenda. Leaving school faculty members to navigate this minefield on their own is a recipe for the kind of moment Frisch just experienced.
If we care at all about our children, our teachers and our communities, we will insist that policies on politics and education be thoughtfully constructed to protect us all from the passions of minors and of the moment. The Frisch yearbook story is a cautionary tale. Schools can either get ahead of the problem or find themselves frustrated and fractured by it. Jewish day schools, in particular, have an opportunity to lead rather than follow on this issue.
Let’s hope they make the right choice.
Rebecca Sugar is a freelance writer and philanthropic consultant in New York.