Newton North High School senior Henry DeGroot was visiting a school outside Beijing on a semester abroad this year when he decided to have some fun and also make a point by writing prodemocracy messages in the notebook of a Chinese student.
“Democracy is for cool kids,” he recalls writing. “Don’t believe the lies your school and government tell you,” said another message, and “It’s right to rebel.”
But when Chinese school officials found out, he had to serve five hours of detention. And when he returned home, it got worse: Newton school officials barred DeGroot from his prom.
Newton school officials say he violated semester abroad rules, embarrassed the principal of the Chinese school that was hosting Newton students, and showed so much disrespect for the Chinese that the longstanding relationship with the school may be harmed.
DeGroot sees it differently.
He says his rights were abridged by the Newton school system. The school system, he says, taught him the importance of civil disobedience and speaking his mind, but then punished him when he practiced what he learned.
Instead of the prom, DeGroot said he and his date, dressed in formal attire, went to Five Guys, the local burger restaurant. “I’m missing a lifetime of memories,’’ he said.
The controversy over free speech is taking place against the backdrop of the 25th anniversary of the events in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where Chinese government troops opened fire on student prodemocracy protesters who had occupied the area.
Newton School Superintendent David Fleishman said the problem is not that the 18-year-old expressed his opinions but that he did so on a school-sponsored semester in China, violating a code of conduct clearly spelled out to students before they left.
“We certainly want our students to be thoughtful and critical thinkers,” said Fleishman. “We encourage that, and we pride ourselves on giving students that opportunity. But this is not about free speech.”
DeGroot was among a group of eight Newton students on a four-month study abroad program, under a longstanding partnership between Newton and the Beijing Jingshan School. The episode happened when the Newton group visited another school, in a small town outside of Beijing.
At the end of a two-hour visit with the Chinese students, school officials asked the Newton group to write their e-mail addresses in the students’ notebooks so they could stay in touch. That’s when DeGroot said he wrote the prodemocracy phrases in one of the notebooks.
“It was definitely stupid, but I hoped the kids would read it and think about why this foreigner was writing this,” he said. “And hopefully they would be critical, or at least think about how their school and government interacts with them.”
But a Chinese teacher who reads English saw the phrases and told principal Fan Luyan of the Beijing Jingshan School, host to the Newton students.
The principal was highly insulted, according to DeGroot.
Fleishman said the phrases DeGroot wrote in the student’s notebook have nothing to do with speaking his mind or free speech.
“What he did chilled the rest of the entire trip. It put a strain on the visit,” Fleishman said. He said students are taught the intricacies of Chinese culture and social norms before they leave for the exchange, and they sign a detailed code of conduct, which he says DeGroot violated.
Consequences of students breaking the code can include being sent home from the student exchange at their own cost. Fleishman said that option was not considered for DeGroot because there were just two or three weeks left in the semester abroad when the controversy played out.
Fleishman said writing the phrases that insulted his Chinese hosts was a clear violation of the standards of behavior that DeGroot agreed to before leaving.
“It’s about adhering to the program standards,” he said.
While in China, Newton teachers had instructed DeGroot to write a letter of apology to Fan, principal of the Beijing Jingshan School.
He did, but he included an explanation of his reasons for writing the prodemocracy message. “I felt as a human being on this planet I have an inalienable right to free speech if I’m doing it in a non-vulgar, appropriate way, as this private conversation was,” DeGroot said in an interview.
He said he eventually agreed to rewrite the apology letter, but he refused to deliver it in person to the principal. “I wasn’t going to go out of my way to take a 30-minute train ride to deliver the letter,” he said.
Because of the prodemocracy note, he said, the US and Chinese school officials made him stay in detention for five hours while his classmates went on another trip. He was later told he could not attend the prom, a disciplinary action Fleishman said high school administrators chose because of the lateness of the school year.
Fleishman said he is concerned that DeGroot’s actions could have an impact on the entire exchange program. The Newton schools have had a relationship with Fan and his school since 1979, and have been involved in the school exchange since 1988.
“I applaud kids who want to be politically active, and I believe this program helps kids be active citizens of the world,” Fleishman said. “I don’t want to jeopardize that goal by one student doing something that could end one of the longest-running exchange programs with China.”
Ken Hamilton, chairman of the school exchange committee, said the Beijing Jingshan School is considered an elite institution.
“For something like this to happen, it’s embarrassing for principal Fan,” Hamilton said. “It’s losing face for him, and in Chinese culture that is like losing your reputation.”
Hamilton likened what DeGroot did to embarrassing someone in their own home, and then refusing to apologize.
“Had Henry apologized as he was requested to do, we easily could have repaired the problem. Now it is a little harder,” he said.
Hamilton said Fleishman and representatives of the Newton school exchange have a scheduled telephone meeting with Fan on June 12.
“I’m sure Henry’s behavior and the consequences will be discussed,” he said.
For DeGroot, who is heading to UCLA this fall, the incident left him with a feeling that the Newton school system he’s loved for the past 13 years has let him down.
“They refused to take any stand to support the principles they taught us,” he said.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org