Paul Jacob

The school’s response might have been calm by today’s standards — no psychologist, no SWAT team. But, of course, the school principal claimed putting the message up had been a “safety risk,” even though James actually wore a helmet while standing on the ladder pressing the letters to the school’s brick exterior . . . with two friends spotting him. It was further alleged that James and his two also indicted co-conspirators trespassed on school property by being outside the building putting up the message between one and three in the morning. All three students were suspended and, because their suspensions were issued after April 1, they were also banned from attending the prom.

By the way, Sonali’s response to James’ prom invitation was, “Yes.” As for the school’s heavy handedness, she adroitly commented, “This is really upsetting. It’s our senior year and we are supposed to have happy memories, not something like this.”

To his credit, James expressed regret for putting his friends in a bad situation. He told one reporter, “I feel like a jerk for getting them in trouble, and leaving my date dateless.” He also offered to make up for his transgressions by doing “community service — like cleaning up the litter outside the school.”

The school would have none of it. While various students displayed a keen sense of justice and proportion — with statements like “[The sign] could be taken off so it’s not like it was permanent damage and he didn't deface any property” and “She should have just let him off with a warning”—the administration put the school on “complete lockdown” to block any budding student revolution against the educational/correctional institution holding them. On Friday, Headmaster Beth Smith, flocked by police, informed the throngs of assembled media camped outside the school that a planned sit-in had been averted with “no disruption.”

But there was, indeed, a disruption. Thank goodness, Shelton High School’s ridiculous clampdown on James Tate and his friends sent an unmistakably troubling message: that enthusiasm and creativity are punishable; that education isn’t supposed to be fun; that bureaucratic rules come far ahead of common sense and decency; that school is a cold institution, rather than a place that nurtures living, growing persons; and that rather than “sucking the marrow out of life,” kids need to learn to just keep their heads down and move along in line . . . when told to move.

People all over America, all over the world, were appalled and tried their best to help. A Facebook page dedicated to Tate’s cause grew quickly to hundreds of thousands, emails were sent and phone calls made to school officials in Shelton, Connecticut. And a Shelton High School in Washington State reported their phone and email inboxes filled with comments berating them for the stupid behavior of their namesake in Connecticut.

Yesterday, Shelton officials finally — and unconditionally — surrendered. Announcing the abandonment of the school’s hard-line position, and that Tate and his two friends could indeed go to the prom, Superintendent Freeman Burr declared, sheepishly, “James Tate has set for us a new standard for romanticism.” Headmaster Beth Smith, who days earlier had strongly defended her draconian commitment to the no-prom punishment, admitted, “I never thought this would lead to international notoriety.”

But as one poster on the Facebook page correctly assessed, “She didn’t reverse her decision because it was the right thing to do, she caved to the pressure of us, all of us.”

James and Sonali get to go to prom, thanks to people power. But what does this say about placing more money and authority in the public schools? Common sense shouldn’t require a worldwide media storm in order to prevail.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.