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November 10, 2003

Sashwat Singh's Rap CD Suspension

Sashwat Singh is an honor student at Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, WI. He's a big music lover -- he's in the school band and choir, and he's a big fan of local live music as well. And, like most kids these days, he's good on the computer.

So 15-year-old Sashwat made his own rap CD on his computer, over the course of the past few months. 14 songs. And, not surprisingly, his rap CD contains obscenities and tough talk, toward his peers and authority figures in his life.

And -- not surprisingly at all, I'm sad to say -- he got suspended from school for it. In the assault on logic commonly called "zero tolerance policies" in schools, Sashwat's CD -- made outside of school -- was judged to be on a par with a bomb threat, arson or bringing guns to school.

Not content with merely defiling the Brookfield High student body's conception of their rights as individuals to free thought and free speech, and sacrificing Sashwat to the altar of Making An Example, the school district is considering going a step further and holding an expulsion hearing. To do so would give him ten more school-free days right off the bat, while he and his parents and lawyer spend time figuring out how to explain this kid's right to make a rap CD to people who don't already understand that he has that right. Presumably, if they fail to successfully explain that fact, Sashwat would be expelled from school. I'm not ready to believe they would actually expel him for this, but neither can such madness be ruled out as a possibility, as anyone who has read about the legions of idiotic disciplinary actions that have taken place under the rubric of "zero tolerance" knows all too well. If lemon drops, stick drawings of U.S. soldiers, and plastic silverware can be grounds for suspensions, then why shouldn't expelling a kid for making a CD be a viable possibility?

I'll tell you one thing that's nearly certain -- Sashwat Singh is going to have a much bigger problem with authority from here on out than he ever did before. My intuition is that he will not "learn his lesson", as his school administrators -- in the case of his principal, vengeful school administrator -- surely wish he would. He's too smart, and too far along in developing free expression. At least I hope he is. Making a 14-song CD is no small feat, and for a 15-year-old to do it all on his own shows a serious committment. And just from the slice of his life that I was able to find on the Internet, one can see that he has a very passionate interest in music -- something that, in a normal world of sanity, would be encouraged and rewarded, especially if it showed in someone with Sashwat's drive and ambition.

I haven't heard the CD yet, but that really doesn't matter. The news stories presumably gave the lowdown on the "bad stuff" -- talking the proverbial shit about his mother and peers, and offering vengeful new Principal Mark Cerutti a beat down if he doesn't get out of town. If there was worse than that I assume we'd have heard about it -- and if there was worse than that, then so what?

"I got my twelve-gauge sawed off/I got my headlights turned off/I'm 'bout to bust some shots off/I'm 'bout to dust some cops off!"

-Body Count, "Cop Killer" (1992)

"Hey you ever get the feelin that America is turning into some kinda sit-com, lowest common denominator shopping mall marketing strategy from hell?/You ever get that feeling?/Well I got that feeling right now/And it's kinda getting under my skin/Yeah, so I'm gonna get some gas-o-line, and/Burn down the malls"

-Mojo Nixon, "Burn Down the Malls" (1986)

"You know I've never visited Alaska/Where the oil was spilled/That drunken captain should be killed/An atrocity, he still walks free..."

-311, "!#$ The %&*!" (1993)

I post those lyrics -- and you know I could go on posting the same or worse for a very long time -- to help Principal Cerutti, Superintendent Gibson, and anyone else who's confused, understand that "threats" and violence are not considered the same way when they occur in a creative medium such as music. Mojo Nixon was not prosecuted for his "plan" to burn down the malls (nor his plan, 9 years later, to take over a national armory and start a revolution); Ice-T was not jailed for the cop-killing spree he "described" in song (nor for the killing of his mother that he described -- vividly -- in another song); and 311 was never interrogated about their effort to get the captain of the Exxon Valdez killed.

Music -- and rap even moreso than most music -- is an effort in creative fiction. Or, to put it in a way that a high school administrator might be able to understand -- the journey in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales never really happened. Dante never really went on a stroll through the levels of Hell. Holden Caulfield is not JD Salinger.

All that aside, this CD was created outside of school. Just as the school would have no cause for administrative disciplinary action if a student said "I'm going to beat Principal Cerutti down if he doesn't get out of town" while at his or her home, they also have nothing to go on here. If Cerutti thought it was a real threat to him, then he had recourse through the police, but not through his own school-borne authority. The only possible cause for action (and it's really weak) is that Sashwat was apparently distributing, in some cases selling, his CD on school grounds. So he maybe committed the selling or distributing of something that's not allowed to be sold or distributed at school. But the item is a CD -- not a weapon, not drugs. I find it improbable that CDs are considered contraband of some sort. (Though I won't be surprised if Principal Cerutti makes an adjustment of that nature to the rulebook, so as to ensure that materials which demean him are only exchanged off of school property in the future.)

If my dramatic portrayal of Sashwat Singh's unfortunate situation has fired you up enough to act out, click here for a series of easy steps you can take to help direct things toward a relatively happy ending. There are newspapers to be written to, Board of Education members to phone, meetings to go to -- and a Mr. Cerutti and a Mr. Gibson that need to be told what we think of administrators who punish students for taking initiative and being creative. Take action!

Click here to read about my own suspension in 1988 for writing a poem, when I was 15 like Sashwat.

Oh, and in fairness to him, here's a less humiliating picture of Sashwat than the apparent school photo that appears in the news article.

Posted by Lance Brown at November 10, 2003 02:08 AM | TrackBack

I keep reading these stories of children being suspended and worse in schools these days, no longer is it just the bullies in your peer group that you need fear, now it's the teachers too, granted I know several persons over the age of 30 that are still afraid of entering a principles office...

This is just one more reason that I'm happy that I chose to pull my children out of the school system, I choose to homeschool, I choose my children and their creativity over what the school board feels is acceptable, I choose to teach my children you need not fear people in an authority position, I choose not to let the teacher tell me that my son can't pass the state exams ONLY to request his records to find that he not only passed he EXCEEDED the states levels, I choose not to make my children have to ask permission to use the restroom, wet their hair down, or eat something when they are hungry...

According to the constitution the Federal Government can't interfere with what I do as a homeschooler, now if we could just get that same thing passed for all the states and get them out of our homeschooling beds and allow us to get on with it without their interruption or ignorant statistical needs (i.e. state testing)!

I'll quit now because I could go on for days with the way I feel about the public school system and it's teachers as a whole....


Posted by: Kathie at November 14, 2003 10:52 PM
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