If there's one lesson to be learned from the sidewalk confrontation between a Downingtown Area School District administrator and a teen anti-abortion protester on the sidewalk outside a local high school, it's this:
The uncivil war raging in American society right now is taking its toll on all of us, and its victims include our children.
Last week Zachary Ruff, the STEM Academy dean of academics and student life, was put on administrative leave by the Downingtown School District after a heated exchange on April 21 with a pair of protesters, a brother and sister. One of the siblings filmed the exchange and posted it online.
Few have defended Ruff's behavior as documented in the video, though many have commented that they believe he was defending his students. He is, after all, an adult who was talking to two children. His epic rant included the use of profanity, mocking the protesters' beliefs, singing loudly, and even apparently dancing. On the other hand, the protesters (who told several media outlets they had come to Downingtown because of a Holocaust symposium at West High School), in filming the episode, clearly hoped to milk any dramatic moments for future use.
In a statement shared with district parents and posted online, outgoing Superintendent Lawrence Mussoline condemned Ruff's outburst in no uncertain terms and announced that the district was beginning an investigation.
Local television stations have featured the debacle, as have anti-abortion media outlets eager to draw attention to their cause. "Two pro-life teenagers just had a pretty amazing encounter with the forces of tolerance," snarked Fox anchor Tucker Carlson, before airing an interview with the home-schooled videographers.
Many parents and students in the approximately 12, 000-student district have rallied to support Ruff. By midday Tuesday a petition begun last week by STEM students had garnered more than 35,000 signatures (though many signees were from outside the area). Students are reportedly preparing statements in support of Ruff for the school board meeting on May 3.
Dorothy Kirk is a parent at STEM — my son graduated from the school last year. Kirk hopes Ruff's long and favorable history with the district will outweigh his brief "regrettable" sidewalk outburst as he tried to help students and parents safely exit onto the busy street that runs by the school.
"Dr. Ruff's a good man," said Kirk. "He's devoted to his students, well-liked, and well-respected in the community. It wasn't like him to lose his composure. We live in a social media society where individuals are not allowed to make a mistake even once for a few minutes — a singular worst moment can be captured on video and forever posted online."
For many, this hideously pitch-perfect cage match undoubtedly confirms their worst stereotypes about the blind zealotry of the religious right, and the intolerance of the secular left.
One doesn't have to watch the entire 18-minute video to be profoundly disheartened about the political and cultural moment in which we find ourselves.
When the teens begin to talk about the "holocaust of abortion," Ruff fires back, "They're cells," adding that STEM is a "science-based school." "Jesus Christ will set you free from your sins" says protester Conner Haines. "It's a public school, we don't believe in that here," responds Ruff.
Polls taken by Gallup and others suggest that Americans are closely divided between those who identify between as "pro-choice" and "pro-life," but that most the public remains reluctant to impose their personal views on fellow citizens.
We often don't know what we think. We're conflicted. Life is messy. While some of us may believe sincerely that fetuses are merely clumps of cells, and others are sure that you must repent and believe in Jesus to be saved, a lot of us aren't so sure. In a society in which the extremes set a low bar for public discourse, many of us either find our voices drowned out or are forced to man the barricades for positions we secretly doubt we can wholeheartedly endorse.
Ryan Zindel, a senior at STEM, says he has loved the smaller and more collaborative environment at his school, which has been rated the top-ranked school in the state several times. But, he adds, his conservative views aren't always welcome in the classroom. "A couple of other kids had the same ideas that I did, and some kids chose not to engage at all," he said.
"I think people are very divided right now" Zindel adds. "A lot of it comes from there being no discussion between opposite sides of the political spectrum. We're so divided that there is no consensus."
Hopefully, he says, this controversy will be used as a learning experience, adding, "You can't just tell people that their beliefs are wrong."
While some will characterize the episode as one pitting a beloved (though intemperate) administrator against anti-abortion interlopers, I think we need to look deeper to find solutions.
Local educators may need some basic training in how to cope with protests, which have occurred in other school districts around the country without sparking a potentially career-ending crisis. But appropriate behavior isn't just the province of teachers and administrators. Whatever our beliefs, all of us are being challenged to figure out where we can stand — together. Sometimes that's as simple as admitting that we need one another to succeed.
The culture wars, likely to intensify in this tumultuous political environment, have erupted in Downingtown. In this conflicted moment, we can only hope that we will find the strength and true tolerance to build on our heritage and create anew a community story, however broad, that includes us all.