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Our View: Context key in East Ridge poem controversy

East Ridge High School found itself in the spotlight last week after a poem read over the school's loudspeaker drew some harsh criticism.

It likely wasn't the kind of spotlight the school was looking for. A group of parents and community members recoiled after learning the poem, "Black Child's Pledge," was originally published in the Black Panther Party's newspaper. Others took to social media to voice their displeasure with the decision, which was read as part of ongoing Black History Month activities at the school.

East Ridge Principal Aaron Harper said the poem was read before he was aware of it. As Harper tells it, the poem was chosen because it presented an opportunity to expose students to an influential, if militant, group behind the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He argues it's important for students to bear witness to history's key figures, even if it means exposing them to the controversial side.

It's a position that plays to the heartstrings of a newspaper editorial board, though we're not quite willing to climb aboard. The reason: context.

There is indeed a time and a place for everything. Study of the Black Panther Party's influence in the struggle for civil rights certainly has its role in curriculum, and we wouldn't argue against it being addressed through study - and in the context of other movements in the civil rights era.

Where we see East Ridge veered off course was by highlighting the controversial group through a monologue over the PA system. It's difficult to see how a relatively obscure poem from a militant group - recited outside the context of classroom instruction - comprises an educational experience. On the surface, the reading drew attention more for its shock value and likely undermined whatever educational component its supporters at East Ridge may have hoped for.

Now does a reading of this poem at a public school imply tacit support of the Black Panther Party's ideals? Certainly not. Those who made that leap through social media overreacted.

As a newspaper, we're always inclined to see things from all sides. In this case, we agree that the reading was a lapse in judgment. Yet we also believe that the school's heart was in the right place, though perhaps misguided. In the end, we agree with Harper that after it was all said and done, it was a learning lesson for all.