Showing “20 Shocking China Facts You Don’t Know” Video in Class Led to Firing of Minnesota Teacher,

A decision of Stephen F. Befort, arbitrator Peterson v. Indep. School. Dist. No. 244, Chisago LakesHandled Sept. 21, but published a few weeks back on Westlaw. (See also this article from the Chisago County Press [Jeff Norton]):

Jeremy Peterson, a Chisago Lakes School district continuing contract teacher is employed. He has worked for the School District for seventeen years and primarily teaches 8th grade social studies and geography classes….

Peterson received generally high praises for his teaching abilities. One blemish is the 2012 non-disciplinary directives issued by School District to Peterson in response that he had shown students a clip containing a campaign advertisement for a candidate. Peterson was directed by the School District to avoid expressing personal views to students. He also had to show sound professional judgment when he taught in the future.

One of Peterson’s last classes was China during the 2020-21 schoolyear. Peterson shared a YouTube clip titled “20 Shocking China Facts you Don’t Know”, towards the end class, on May 27, 2021.

It presented negative information on China and its culture. Topics covered were media censorship and eating cats. In a highly sensationalized way that exploited negative stereotypes, the video provided information with doubtful validity. Peterson stopped the video following the 18th event, sparing students the information about virginity and dog meat festivals. Peterson said that the video was “interesting”, and then dismissed the class.

[The video appears to be this one:]

One student from China-American found the video particularly disturbing. Her parents testified that she went to a study center after class and broke down, then cried. Student claimed she was having a horrible day after school and blamed the China video. The student explained to her mother, upon her return from school, that she felt ashamed by the video and began crying again. The parents later saw the YouTube video and thought it was inappropriate for presentation to eighth graders. It is unclear whether this incident will affect the student in the long term, according to the testimony of his father.

The student’s parents filed a complaint about the video with the School District….

Peterson was expelled by his school board, among others, for “immoral behavior”; this was on the grounds that it was discriminatory, reinforced stereotypes and sexualized, as well as “that the video had been shown in a period when hate crimes were increasing towards Asian Americans”.

In short, your conduct in showing the video was impolite and unbecoming of a teacher. You should be immediately removed from any classrooms or duties. You displayed the video in a discriminatory manner, promoted racism and prejudice, and was harmful to your students. Your conduct was also divisive and offensive to basic notions of human dignity and equity….

Although the arbitrator disapproved of immoral conduct, he concluded that 40 days suspension was appropriate for “conduct unfit to be a teacher”.

This video portrays China and Chinese culture incorrectly in an unflattering, negative light. Peterson didn’t check the authenticity of the claims in the video and did not participate in class discussions that would have offered a balanced view. At bottom, the video perpetuates racial and ethnic stereotypes that promote Anti-Asian attitudes….

It presented a negative and sensationalized view of Chinese culture. The video was unreliable. Even more significant, the video perpetuates racial and ethnic stereotypes and promotes Anti-Asian attitudes….

Peterson stated at the arbitration hearing that his views are not anti-China. Education Minnesota witnesses said they knew Peterson personally and that he was not racist. The most striking thing about the record is that there’s no evidence to suggest Peterson has made any other racially-tainted remarks or actions in the past. Accordingly, while Peterson committed a very serious act of misconduct, the School District has not shown that he acted with a malicious racist intent….

Peterson’s video of his student caused immediate distress to the Chinese-American parent who filed a formal complaint. The student’s father stated that the long-term effects of the incident are unknown. Peterson also admitted that he had likely done harm to the student by showing the video in class. Since Peterson played the video to five class section a year for five years running, several hundred students are potentially impacted, although the extent of any actual harm is unknown….

My thoughts: I find the video shallow and quite foolish. Seventh-graders might be surprised to learn that there’s an “bra technology studies” degree at a Chinese university. This is especially true in the context where this seems to portray it in a negative light. It also encourages students to view foreign countries as a basis for mockery rather than for serious understanding—and that’s especially educationally poor idea when it comes to understanding our foreign adversaries.

While the video doesn’t seem to be hostile to Chinese Americans, it does show some criticism of China. Some of these critics may also refer to China and perhaps to aspects of Chinese culture, such as openness to death penalty (which could be cultural, not just a political feature) or cat eating by what appears to only a fraction of Chinese population. It seems that the school believes criticizing another country’s government and policies is wrong in some way.

Is it possible for a teacher to want to give class materials which reflect poorly on China and other important materials? He may even admit that he has “personally held anti-China views” in which he believes China to be oppressive and dangerous. Perhaps the school or an arbitrator may distinguish that case, on the grounds that those materials were of more than “little … educational value.” However, I don’t think any teacher could have such confidence. Indeed, the concern is that China-silly criticisms will “perpetuate”.[]”Racial and ethnic stereotypes and encourages Anti-Asian attitudes.” (regardless about the purpose of the teacher), but substantive criticisms are more likely to have greater impact.

Take a look at this quote by a member of the school board (actually the one that voted to not fire Peterson but to apply a less severe form discipline)

However, the important thing is that all of us learn and must be more sensitive to each other. It is important to be more compassionate and gentle. We want the students in the Chisago Lakes School District to be comfortable…. Being a Chisago Lakes teacher and member of the school board, I have always wanted students from Chisago Lakes to feel at home and safe. It will be possible, and I am confident Mr. Peterson is willing to return and help develop positive relationships with his students.

I appreciate the value of making students feel comfortable—but that can’t lead to a prohibition on criticizing countries with whom the students may feel a connection. The same could be said about any negative portrayal of China, regardless of whether they are educationally shallow and deep.

This is also part of a broader trend that I’ve seen where criticisms of China—indeed, in context clearly criticisms of the Chinese government—have led to punishment or demand for punishment on the theory that they may offend some Chinese-Americans or might unintentionally encourage violent attacks on Asian-Americans. The Emerson College conclusion that the stickers labelled “China Kinda Sus” were prohibited discriminatory conduct; the University of San Diego Law School investigating a professor over blog posts critical of China; or attempts to label the theories that COVID was spread by a Wuhan leak as “racist” which contributed to social media platforms banning those postings for more than a year.

I find this to be very wrong. Foreign countries such as China, Russia, Mexico or Israel are worthy of discussion and criticism. This commentary should not be suppressed simply because people feel an emotional connection to the country.

This is not a First Amendment argument. Courts generally conclude that teachers in K-12 schools do not have the First Amendment right of dictating their content. Schools can say anything they want, but if it’s concluded to have “little educational value”, that would be legal. But it would be a bad idea, I think; and it is  an especially bad idea when it leaks out of K-12 schooling and into higher education and elsewhere, which we have already seen.