Laura Martocci Ph.D.

You Can’t Sit With Us

Public Ridicule Is Not Against the Law

So is it okay for schools to publicly shame poor-performing students?

Posted Jan 11, 2019

Recently, I wrote a blog exploring whether publicly shaming your bully child was tough love or bad parenting.

On its heels, a related article surfaced in the media. However, unlike Matthew Cox’s story/video of his daughter Kirsten’s public shaming, the piece did not go viral, or make international headlines. Perhaps it should have.

This article, entitled “School policy forces kids with bad grades to wear special IDs:  ‘Public Ridicule’ says ACLU.” takes public shaming to a whole new level.

In a nutshell: Arizona’s Mingus Union High School (which requires all students to wear color badges that identify their grade-level) has, in addition, issued low performing students a scarlet badge (of shame) “with numbers that indicate their repeated grade level if their marks don’t improve.”

Matthew Cox, move over.

There is nothing re-integrative about this public stigmatization; no ‘reparation / forgiveness / redemption’ subtext.

In case you are wondering, it appears that the actions of the school are legal (though they seem perilously close to encroaching on private information, discrimination, and even libel).*

Before slamming this blog with vehement response-diatribes against the administrators at Mingus, know that the HS appears to have reconsidered this policy—or, at least, it has been scoured from their web-site. Also know that the school’s apparent policy reversal does not solve the issues that prompted its adoption in the first place.

So rather than sighing in relief and moving on to other stories (dismissing this incident as just an ugly blip that has been quickly and quietly rectified) we should pause for a moment, and consider what those policies might have be saying.

I hear, in them, a desperate cry for help. A cry that says, in essence: "since we have been stripped of all traditional authority-measures we struggle to carry out our mission, which is to educate, and feel we have no recourse but to reintroduce shaming as an effective control." Or maybe: "Students today privilege social media over learning, and it has ‘schooled’ them in ways to challenge boundaries by undermining their peers, and/or their teachers." Or even: "Parents are often not our collaborators, or even our supporters." 

A cry that says: "We are at a loss, and so we are going to try this means of marshalling peer pressure in the name of scholastic achievement."

The point in this story that we should take issue with is not whether the school has the legal right to do this, but whether they truly have no other recourse. And the answer to that question is ‘No.’

Social Emotional Learning initiatives and Restorative Justice trainings are mushrooming in education, and have impressive data supporting their effectiveness. So the real question to pose is: "why didn’t the school resort to one or the other such approach / programming, and begin offering their students skill-sets for negotiating the emotional pitfalls they face—pitfalls that may well be affecting their grades?"

This question quickly broadens to "why, as a nation, have we been so slow in making Social Emotional Learning (SEL) programming available to, as well as Restorative Justice (RJI)  training normative in, schools across the country?" Why have we thrown millions toward teaching to tests, but given no support or sponsorship to the teaching of skill sets young people will need to negotiate/succeed in all manner of relationships (and situations) throughout their lives? In short: "Why do we teach to learning outcomes, to the exclusion of relationship management?"

Ask yourself: In the long run, what sort of people do we want students to become? How do we want them to manage the conflicts they will face and mis-steps they will take in life (whether it be a disagreement with a peer / significant other / supervisor, a speeding ticket, or being caught cheating on a test?) What skill sets do they need in order to engage life, and to negotiate it in productive ways?

  • Perhaps if we shift our views, and begin to require schools to prioritize relationship outcomes in addition to learning outcomes, we can avoid laminated scarlet badges.
  • Perhaps if we accept the fact that we need to do more than challenge particular ‘consequences';  that we need, instead, to challenge punishment culture / the very mentality that results in Mingus-like ‘consequences’ (knowing full well that the change we want to see will take a period of years) we can avoid laminated scarlet badges.
  • Perhaps if we help develop and implement practices that hold students accountable for their behavior in productive ways, we can avoid laminated scarlet badges.
  • Perhaps if we actively sponsor smaller class sizes, enabling educators to see themselves as, first and foremost, in the business of relationships from which all manner of learning follows, we can avoid laminated scarlet badges.

As parents, we are in a position to pressure schools for these changes. We are in a position to bring SEL and RJI programming to the attention of principals, and to petition superintendents, assemblymen, and congresswomen to support these initiatives. We are in a position to sponsor PTA fund-raisers that will help support the implementation of new programming. We are in a position to solicit corporate sponsorship for more than a new popcorn machine. And, we are in a position to model patience and the prioritizing of relationships as schools struggle to implement nothing short of comprehensive sea-change.

Don’t ignore the affront and indignation you may feel over the actions taken by Mingus High, but rather, use those feelings to support—even spearhead—the type of change you want to see. 


* Keen insight into public shaming, especially cybershaming and its formal and informal consequences, is to be found in this article--(even if grounded in Australian law).