November 17, 2003
About this Project

"30 Days of Raps about Principal Mark Cerutti" was inspired by the suspension of Brookfield (Wisconsin) Central High School honors student Sashwat Singh. Sashwat -- a member of the school band and choir, who ran for class treasurer -- was suspended for the content of an original rap CD which he made on his home computer over the course of 3 months. Nominally, the suspension was due to a song on that CD which was about the school's principal -- specifically, these lines:

...SACK muthaf**ka leave this f**kin' town
If you don't then I'll f**kin' beat your ass down!

(click here for the full uncensored lyrics)

Did those lyrics amount to an actual threat against the principal? No. As explained in this site's first rap, a "beat down" in a rap song is a common literary device -- a metaphor. Furthermore, rap songs, like all other fictional media, are told through a narrative voice -- a character in the fictional piece, distinct from the author. This is seen, for example, in how writers create movies where buildings blow up and people die, without the writers themselves wanting those things to actually happen. As I state in my first opinion article about the suspension, there are countless examples of threatening lyrics in songs that were never considered to be real life threats. Indeed, area newspaper columnist Laurel Walker said of the song, "It's hardly threatening". And in the "Fact Finding for Expulsion" document prepared by the district's superintendent, nowhere is it said that Sashwat threatened his principal. Not even the school claims it was a real life threat.

Instead, what Superintendent Matt Gibson said in his review -- 3 times -- was that Sashwat's CD "may have been more intended by Sashwat as musical expression than any contemplated action to threaten [Principal Cerutti, and others named in the CD]'s safety". Another statement of his indicates a view that's clearer than that -- he says (according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) that he did not "find the desire in the student to actually act on those lyrics." A threat, however is "a declaration of intention to harm, injure, etc." (From Webster's New School & Office Dictionary, emphasis mine.) The superintendent's own words show that he did not think there was an actual threat made.

The settlement agreement requires Sashwat to see a school counselor or psychologist in the week following his return to school, "regarding his feelings that prompted him to compose the track of the CD that regarded Principal Cerutti." More than anything, that bares the truth of what Sashwat was punished for: having certain thoughts and feelings, and expressing them into a song -- not for threatening the principal. It's important that that point is understood, because it makes all the difference.

Threatening the principal is an act which is deserving of punishment -- expressing one's feelings about the principal through a creative medium is not. Setting the record straight in that respect -- and clearing up other points of confusion surrounding this case -- is the first reason this focus area was created.

It's important that people understand what really happened, and that it was wrong, and why. Over the course of the next 30 days, those points will be explained and clarified in as much detail as possible, in plain prose as well as in rap form.

Secondly, there is another issue which has been shoved to the side during the controversy regarding Sashwat's CD, and the other aim of "30 Days of Raps about Principal Mark Cerutti" is to bring that issue into the light, and keep it on the light until it has been resolved. The issue is the heavy-handed way in which Principal Cerutti runs the school, according to many accounts. Reports seem to show that he has unduly restricted the students in their planning of activities and events, that he has fostered an atmosphere of discontent among the students, and that he has been overly harsh in his punishments. (He even suspended a kid for writing a rap song about him, believe it or not! ;-))

The rap song Sashwat was suspended for was primarily intended as an expression of discontent with the principal's methods and conduct. It was, in other words, a protest song -- an echo of a sentiment which has gained prominence in the school, only two months into Mr. Cerutti's reign at BCHS.

In that light, we can see Sashwat's supension for what it really was: the heavy-handed reaction of an unpopular person of authority, and an attempt to silence a voice of dissent. And in that light, it becomes all the more clear that it should be opposed -- and that this person of authority, and the dissent he hoped to stifle, should be examined more closely. And that is job number two of "30 Days of Raps about Principal Mark Cerutti": examining the means and methods of Principal Cerutti, and providing a forum for airing the dissent that he wishes to stifle.

Lastly, it is the view of the author that the precedent that was set by the disciplinary settlement of the Sashwat Singh Rap CD case was a bad precedent, and should be reversed. It is my hope that said precedent will indeed be reversed, either through a change in the official position on that case, or through a new, similar case which has a different disciplinary result.

I believe that it is reasonable and sensible for school administrators to investigate things that they feel might be a (physical) threat or danger to the school, its staff, or the student body, and that if a threat or danger is found, then it is appropriate to take the disciplinary measures necessary to eliminate the threat and discourage its potential for recurrence. However, if the investigation reveals that no actual threat or danger exists, it is simply wrong to wield a punishment as if it did exist.

The only possible offense that merited punishment in Sashwat's case was for distributing prohibited materials -- in this case, a plastic disc with music on it. If it's against the rules to possess or transfer compact discs, then he should have been punished for that (although that rule shouldn't exist, but that's another issue). And if the policy of Brookfield Central is to give kids 5 days of suspension for the possession and transfer of compact discs, I should think that would be a matter of deep concern to a great many parents.

Whatever policy (or improvised vengeance) was behind Sashwat's suspension, it needs to be repaired, and here at "30 Days of Raps about Principal Mark Cerutti", we aim to help the community of Brookfield bring about that repair.

Posted by Lance Brown at November 17, 2003 08:50 PM | TrackBack
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