Class discussions and the war in Ukraine

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David Wolowitz from Greenland is Senior Director of the Education Law Group at McLane Middleton.

In March, Vladimir Putin signed a law that punishes public statements contradicting the Russian government’s position that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is merely a “special military operation”. It is a forbidden concept in Russia to call the “military operation” a “war” or to say anything critical about it.

the New York Times recently reported on an eighth grade teacher who was reported for showing her class a video in which Russian and Ukrainian children sing a song about a “world without war”. The teacher was fired by the school.

Don’t think it couldn’t happen in New Hampshire. Under a law recently enacted in New Hampshire, a teacher who engages in a classroom discussion about Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine risks losing his or her teaching career.

In 2021, New Hampshire enacted RSA 193:40 – “Prohibition of Teaching Discrimination”. It contains a list of four prohibited concepts that cannot be “taught” or “taught” in public schools. A prohibited concept is “that an individual, because of age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, family status, mental or physical disability, religion or national origin, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, consciously or unconsciously.

Suppose that during a class discussion about the war in Ukraine, a student says that Putin is a war criminal who is trying to impose his anti-democratic beliefs on Ukraine. Allowing this discussion would, in my interpretation, violate the wording of the New Hampshire statute.

Classroom discussion is part of the educational process. During a class discussion, students are “taught,” thus triggering law enforcement.

Many world leaders, including our president, have called Putin a war criminal. It would not be unreasonable for a student to assert that Putin behaves like a criminal determined to impose his anti-democratic beliefs on a democratic country through a war of oppression.

Criticism of Putin as a criminal could be understood to mean that his beliefs are an innate or “inherent” part of his personality. According to state-issued guidelines for New Hampshire law, “inherent” means “natural, biological, or innate characteristics, as opposed to characteristics that are merely apparent, accidental, or based on external factors.” Many reasonable people believe that repeated criminal behavior is not accidental, but rather an innate characteristic.

Many critics believe that Putin’s oppression of Ukraine is due to his core autocratic and undemocratic beliefs. According to Webster’s dictionary, a belief is “a set of fundamental beliefs”.

According to this analysis, a class discussion in which a student says that Putin is a war criminal trying to subjugate Ukraine to his autocratic beliefs would violate New Hampshire law. Specifically, students are “taught”… “That an individual… by virtue of his… belief…, is inherently… oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The law contains an exception to allow discussion, “as part of a larger course of academic instruction, of the historical existence of the ideas and topics identified in this section.” But, a discussion of Putin’s current conduct would not fall under this exception because they are current events.

Some may wonder if it would be realistic to report a teacher in these circumstances. Not all Americans criticize Putin; some are favorable. It would be naïve not to recognize that public schools and teachers have become popular targets in the culture wars.

Imagine that a parent is upset about the class discussion. The parent can file a complaint against the teacher. Violation of the law “shall be considered a violation of the educator code of conduct that warrants disciplinary action by the state Board of Education.”

A finding of professional misconduct against an educator may result in the loss of their teaching credentials. Defending such a claim would be extremely stressful, time-consuming and expensive. Even acquitted, a teacher who is the subject of a malpractice complaint may have difficulty finding another teaching position.

Given the wording of the current law, teachers should consider avoiding the topic of Putin’s role in the war in Ukraine and ending all classroom discussion. Otherwise, teachers run the very real risk of being denounced by parents who disagree with the content of the discussion.

It is tragic that here, as in Russia, teachers must be careful when discussing current events in Ukraine to avoid any discussion that could possibly be interpreted by an angry parent as teaching concepts banned by the state. to their child.

In Ukraine, citizens sacrifice their lives to protect their freedoms. We must be careful not to take our rights for granted, lest they slip away.

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