Newton North High School senior Henry DeGroot probably shouldn’t pursue a career in the diplomatic service. He’s the feisty, red-blooded American kid who was barred from his own prom for writing prodemocracy messages on a classmate’s notebook while attending a four-month, school-sponsored study program in China. The punishment was an overreaction on the part of Newton school officials and a bad lesson all around.
DeGroot was visiting a school outside Beijing when he penned some phrases in a Chinese student’s notebook, including “Democracy is for cool kids” and “It’s right to rebel.” Chinese school officials took great umbrage upon discovery of the messages. An in-school suspension and letter of apology weren’t sufficient. When DeGroot returned home, the Newton school department barred him from attending the prom for violating the code of conduct for students spending a study period abroad.
DeGroot’s actions were a bit childish. He probably deserved a lecture about the fallout of ignoring social norms and cultural complexities in foreign lands. Apparently, the principal of the Chinese school felt deeply shamed by DeGroot’s boldness. But cultural exchanges are supposed to work in both directions. The Chinese adult hosts should recognize that their young American guests come from a culture where challenging authority is a tradition with deep roots. They shouldn’t expect immature young people from the United States to suddenly adopt the personas of students who live in a society that places severe restrictions on their civil liberties.
This week marked the 25th anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on a protest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that was led by Chinese students not much older than DeGroot. The White House has called on the Chinese government to account for the protesters who were killed or went missing during their peaceful quest for democratic reform. But the Tiananmen Square protest is a taboo subject in China, and virtually ignored by textbook writers and state-controlled news organizations.
DeGroot may have violated the student conduct code. And he damaged his school’s relationship with a Chinese counterpart in a worthwhile exchange program. But Newton’s decision to resort to formal discipline went too far. For a moment, school officials seemed to forget which country tolerates free speech and protest.