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Free speech, white nationalism collide on campus

University administrators cancel events amid fear of violence

Richard Spencer speaks at Texas A&M University in December 2016. Associated Press/Photo by David J. Phillip

Free speech, white nationalism collide on campus

Administrators at Texas A&M University and the University of Florida have canceled white nationalist rallies planned for both campuses next month. Leaders at the state schools said they supported free speech rights but feared a possible repeat of the violence that erupted last weekend during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Organizers vowed to sue, and it’s not clear the schools will prevail.

Texas A&M leaders on Tuesday canceled the “White Lives Matter” rally announced by former student Preston Wiginton just hours after a 20-year-old white nationalist drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters at the Charlottesville rally. Wiginton titled his news release, “Today Charlottesville Tomorrow Texas A&M.”

After considering the real likelihood of violence and consulting law enforcement officials, the university canceled the Sept. 11 rally because of “concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff, and the public,” administrators said in a statement issued Monday night.

Leaders at the University of Florida faced a similar dilemma over a Sept. 12 event planned by the National Policy Institute, an organization run by white nationalist Richard Spencer. The group requested space at the university, although administrators said they didn’t have a signed contract or a deposit for the event. University president W. Kent Fuchs said he wasn’t sure administrators could keep Spencer off campus, although he called the planned appearance “deeply disturbing.”

But on Wednesday morning, Fuchs said he couldn’t put his students’ safety at risk and denied the group’s request for space. Cameron Padgett, a member of Spencer’s group, said he planned to sue. In April, Padgett won a suit against Auburn University in Alabama after administrators there attempted to block an appearance by Spencer.

University safety experts predict more colleges will face the same dilemma during the upcoming school year.

“People are coming to these protests heavily armed, and mixing into crowds with armed and unarmed people,” Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “That puts a much different dynamic in it for law enforcement. Just because someone is armed does not mean they are not going to be peaceful, but it certainly is a complicator.”

Texas lawmakers from both parties had urged Texas A&M officials to do something to block the event on their campus, but administrators initially said the rally could not be stopped because of free speech protections. On Monday, they said the “risks of threat to life and safety” trumped all other considerations. Wiginton said he plans to sue.

In December, Wiginton invited Spencer to the College Station campus for an event that remained mostly peaceful. Following the cancellation of several provocative white nationalist events at other campuses across the country, Texas A&M administrators pledged to support the free exchange of ideas even though they vehemently disagreed with Spencer’s message. Last year’s event ended without a major incident, an outcome campus leaders feared they could not repeat.

Students already had started planning counterprotests.

“White supremacists keep coming to our campus thinking we’re going to support them,” Adam Key, a doctoral student and counterprotest organizer, told The Texas Tribune. “Just like the last time they showed up, we want to demonstrate as clearly as we can that their ideas are not welcome here.”

Texas A&M alumni note the white nationalist events are especially repugnant for a university that sent more officers to fight the Nazis than all the service academies combined. Texas A&M Regent Tony Buzbee accused Wiginton of seeking attention.

“In the end, the best way to deal with a lowlife like him is to ignore him,” Buzbee said.


Ready to work in West Virginia

West Virginia high schools are embracing vocational education in hopes of better preparing students for future jobs, boosting the state’s economy in the process.

In 2010, just 18 percent of the state’s graduates had completed a vocational program. Last year, that number jumped to 37 percent. Nationwide, the vocational training numbers are dismal—just 6 percent of high schoolers are enrolled in a hands-on learning program. Such training is much more common abroad, with several other countries boasting roughly half of students enrolled in vocational training: 42 percent in the U.K., 59 percent in Germany, and 67 percent in the Netherlands.

Education experts blame the disparity on the institutionalized U.S. preference for college degrees, which drives everything from curriculum policy to standardized testing requirements. But as of 2015, fewer than half of millennials had earned any kind of secondary degree, emphasizing the importance of preparing students for a future that doesn’t include more schooling.

Conservatives have echoed President Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for vocational training programs but also warn they’re not a panacea for national or individual economic challenges.

Programs that focus on one skill could leave students scrambling in the future if workforce needs change. One recent study showed that while ready-to-work skills helped students get jobs more quickly after graduation, they didn’t prepare them well to adapt to inevitable economic and technological changes. Critics also note students from poor or low-performing schools are more likely to get pushed toward vocational training, limiting their ability to go to college.

Balance holds the key to successful new policies, said Andy Smarick at the American Enterprise Institute.

“With so much changing in the world of work, so much excitement about new skills providers, and so much need to get people to work, there’s a danger that state K-12 policymakers could overcorrect and force schools to focus too much on the high school-to-work pipeline,” he warned. “We have to remember that the college-for-all mentality of the last generation came about for a reason: Too few students were prepared for college.” —L.J.


Life lessons augmented by fine dinnerware

An art teacher in Lake Worth, Fla., not far from President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, takes on a daunting task each year by teaching etiquette to fifth graders. Rebecca Hinson walks her students through a fancy meal, teaching them how to sit, handle an often confusing array of utensils, and interact with their fellow dinner guests. About 99 percent of students at South Grade Elementary School qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. The mom of one student told NPR Hinson’s etiquette class might be the only opportunity students have to learn social skills they can use in future job interviews and professional settings. One student had a more imminent use in mind: “If we ever go to a prom and we take our girl to a fancy restaurant. Like, we use the resting position if we need to go get something from the car.” —L.J.

No eclipse for you

Officials at the Cumberland Valley School District in Mechanicsburg, Pa., say students won’t be allowed to go outside during Monday’s solar eclipse. Never mind the historic nature of the event. Administrators say they’re afraid students won’t heed warnings not to look at the sun without protective glasses. There’s a teachable moment in here somewhere … —L.J.

Leigh Jones Leigh is acting managing editor for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.


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