Where should public schools draw the line between the professional and personal behavior of their employees?
The question received a full airing last week when News Tribune staff writer Craig Sailor reported that Lincoln High School’s respected assistant principal, Logic Amen, moonlights as a rapper.
Amen’s songs were recorded off campus in his personal time, and some are years old, but their content has a tangential connection to his professional life: They comment on school shootings, sexual promiscuity, drunk driving and other important teen topics.
Naturally, some in the community wonder if Amen, whose job it is to lead and discipline students, went too far with songs that are very graphic and readily available on the internet. Others fully support him.
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Granted, in this age of social media and viral videos, the line between personal and professional activity can be blurry. But local school officials, with the help of the public, need to do a better job defining it.
Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel says Amen hasn’t violated district policies or codes of employee conduct. The district correctly maintains he has a right to free speech.
As journalists we stake our survival to the First Amendment and will defend Amen’s right as a citizen to produce offensive music. But we also believe citizens make trade-offs when they choose certain professions. TNT reporters and editors, for example, forswear political yard signs. National security officials are required to keep secrets.
Educators, whether in school or non-school activities, should exercise responsibility, good taste and rhetorical self-restraint.
Amen has clearly failed to do so with his music. His lyrics from the 2017 song “Cancel Christmas” help make that point: “Pull the fire alarm in the lobby of my high school. Leave the halls bloody like a high noon typhoon. I’m about to cancel Christmas. I won't leave a freakin' witness.”
In the wake of this year’s Florida high school massacre, during which alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz pulled a fire alarm, those words are especially cringe worthy. They’re laced with a bloody realism that might stimulate conversation for some listeners — Amen’s stated goal — but glorify violence for others.
Amen equates his songs to telling a short story about a troubled young person. His passion to entertain and create is understandable, but as with a bullet shot from a gun, one must consider not just the intended target, but also the potential ricochet.
He says that any young person, given “the right coaching and guidance,” will know his lyrics don’t condone violence. Perhaps. But how many kids are exposed to his music in its full context, and how many stumble upon it online? Who’s to say a student won’t be attracted to the bad-ass persona portrayed in a song?
The school district points out that Amen’s work is fiction, but so is most pornography.
We know rap music is not porn, but at times it can be hard to differentiate. Consider a line from “Girl Scout,” a song from an older Amen album: “She’s outside of your house with her nipples all hard peeping through her blouse.”
No reminders should be necessary that this is the era of #metoo, when girls are taught to be vigilant and outspoken. We have to wonder: If a female student facing sexual harassment heard the above lyric, would she feel comfortable going to Mr. Amen’s office to make a complaint?
Or if Asian students heard the term "Chinky eyes" in a 2016 song, would they feel comfortable being around the assistant principal at all?
There’s also the question of whether Tacoma schools have a double standard for free speech.
We know from previous disciplinary actions that the district takes threats, or even hints of threats, made by students seriously, up to and including suspension or expulsion. Even what some might call acts of creative expression — jokes, pranks, cartoons — are red flags.
If a student were to write words similar to “Cancel Christmas” and post them online, we wouldn’t be surprised if he got a visit from police.
To his credit, Amen says he doesn’t play his music at school or bring it up with students. He’s also refreshingly transparent; he spoke openly with the TNT reporter, doesn’t duck controversy and said he would welcome an investigation if the district wants one.
We think a better option would a robust dialogue among administrators and the school board about the boundaries of staff self-expression and the need for a higher standard. Amen says he’s all about “creating conversations;” this would be a doozy.
Meantime, the assistant principal would do well to take down the most offensive recordings from his website.
As a role model, he’s always on the clock.