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Should Teachers Be Informers?

Responding to the threat of homegrown terrorism among the young, Britain now requires all teachers to report any extremist tendencies in their students ("U.K. Law Targets Extremism in Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 2). The government justifies the move as protecting the impressionable, not as spying.

I understand the intent of the policy, but I believe it will have serious, unintended consequences. The relationship between teachers and students is based on trust.  If it is in any way undermined, the classroom will no longer be a place where students feel free to express themselves because they will not feel safe.

Radical ideas can best be addressed and combated in an open atmosphere.  When students muzzle themselves through fear of being turned in, the effect is counterproductive. It's far better to allow teachers to engage students in a debate.  Only then is there a possibility of changing their views.

During the height of the Vietnam War, the principal of the high school where I taught banned the school newspaper "The Warrior" from taking a position because he deemed the issue too controversial. Predictably, students published an off-campus newspaper "The Worrier," which it distributed on the sidewalk outside the school. The lesson learned was that ideas cannot be suppressed. They will emerge in one way or another.

Critics will be quick to point out that in the U.S. states require teachers to be mandated reporters behind the backs of students. But that responsibility is limited to signs of physical and psychological abuse in students.  It is not intended to identify thought crimes, which is what the U.K. does.

There are already enough restrictions on what can be said in public-school classrooms.  It would be a grave mistake for the U.S. to follow the U.K. in its new policy.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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