Political correctness has finally made its way from our universities to our junior high schools. Last March, in the northern Illinois town of DeKalb (population 32,000), 75 students of Huntley Middle School walked out of class, held a press conference, demanded the resignation of their principal, and called for the punishment of two classmates who had conducted a survey that supposedly demonstrated “racist” student attitudes toward blacks.

The girls’ survey, which sought to determine whether the racial attitudes of their classmates differed according to gender, was a social science project that both their teacher and principal had approved, and the survey’s reportedly “offensive” results were displayed at the school alongside other student projects. I say “reportedly” because the city school board has confiscated the poster on which the results were displayed and refused to release it to the public.

However, it was the survey itself and not the results that led to the demonstration. Huntley students not only held the girls responsible for the “offensive attitudes,” but they even branded them “racists” for their participation in the project. Tim Lewis, the eighth-grader who led the student walk-out, told the press, “We don’t feel that the students who walked out need counseling. We feel the girls who made the project need to be counseled and the two administrators at Huntley need to be counseled.” He said of Del Brouwer, the school principal, “We have given him many chances to address us and each time he has addressed us he has gone in circles so we no longer want to speak to him.”

Tim and his co-demonstrators couldn’t have been more successful. Del Brouwer will step down as principal at the end of the school year and be reassigned as a teacher, and school officials and city school board members have privately determined the “proper punishment” for the two girls. Neither the school board nor the girls’ parents would acknowledge the nature of the punishment.

Tim and his friends will even get the counseling they demanded. DeKalb’s superintendent of schools. Bob Williams, immediately ordered “sensitivity training” for the school’s staff and hired consultants to integrate multiculturalism into the curriculum. Not surprisingly, the paid consultants determined the situation at the school to be so dangerous and volatile that they recommended that their services not be postponed until the new school year.

Huntley’s assistant principal, George Boyer, told the press that the students who walked out of class “should be commended and won’t be punished.” Why? Because “the students were learning. They were exercising the democratic process. The event was orderly. No one got hurt.” This episode highlights “the harm that racial insensitivity can do,” he concluded.

This episode was indeed a learning experience, but not in the way Mr. Boyer presumes. DeKalb’s teachers and school administrators could have used this incident to teach their students that learning often means uncovering painful truths, and that for learning to occur our schools must remain open to inquiry and debate and not closed to sensitive and controversial subjects. They could have reminded their students that citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty, and that the girls’ project had been sanctioned by their teacher and principal and in no way proved any malice on their part.

But what did the students learn instead? They learned that rules mean very little, that adults and elected officials can be easily cowed, and that the mature way to get what you want in our society is not through merit, ability, or frank and free debate, but through coercion, pressure politics, and civil disobedience. Most offensive is the lesson Mr. Boyer taught the students. that any action—including cutting class and holding demonstrations—is acceptable as long as “no one gets hurt.” Apparently Mr. Boyer doesn’t consider the principal’s lost reputation and position, or the trauma the two girls have suffered, as damage of any consequence.

The true tragedy of this case is not that opportunities were lost or that wrong lessons were learned. Rather, it is that DeKalb students will no longer freely ask questions without first wondering whether their inquiries are acceptable or unacceptable, “correct” or “incorrect,” or important enough to run the risk of ostracism and punishment. We have long taught our children that the only dumb question is the one never asked. DeKalb’s punishment of two innocent girls may have irreversibly paved the way for many years of silence.