Monday, July 30, 2012

Muhlenberg County Schools and the Gideon Problem (Part 2)

On July 25, I sent an email to Muhlenberg County School Superintendent Dale Todd asking him to clarify the district's new policy on the distribution of materials in schools by the Gideons and other religious groups, as originally explained to me by Board of Education member Don Richey.  My phone call to Mr. Richey was the result of stumbling across the Board of Education Meeting minutes from May 14 and noticing the Board's unanimous vote to support and collaborate with the Gideons--an action that raises some very serious Establishment Clause concerns.

Here is the Superintendent's unedited response:

Ms. Lamb,

In previous years Gideon's were allowed into the schools to distribute Bibles to 5th grade students who wanted one. This was found to be a violation so in October the board announced that this would no longer be allowed. However the board requested I research any way in which non profit organizations could be legally allowed to distribute literature to students and or parents. 

There is no policy related to the May motion. The board voted to allow non profit organizations to be allowed in school during open houses and after school events such as family reading night. If an organization request an opportunity to distribute literature, this is the time designated by the board that it would be allowed and would not disrupt instructional time.

I hope this helps answer questions you have about the board action.

I wasn't surprised that the new policy remains unwritten, unannounced, and vague--despite the fact that Board of Education member Don Richey had mentioned this week's back-to-school open houses as one of the "designated times" when the Gideons and other groups would be able to distribute materials.

This morning I sent the Superintendent a letter outlining what I see as the obvious problems with the district's new policy. 

Dear Mr. Todd:
I appreciate your response regarding the distribution of materials in Muhlenberg County Schools by the Gideons International and other organizations.  I am now clear that there is no written, official policy on the matter; rather, there is an unofficial, unwritten policy that the Gideons and other nonprofit organizations may now request in advance permission to distribute materials at school open houses, reading nights, and other unspecified after-school events.

The purpose of this letter is to encourage you and the Board of Education not to implement this new policy, and to keep not only instructional time, but all school events, entirely free of proselytizing by religious groups.
I believe that the new policy as described to me by both you and Board member Don Richey is constitutionally problematic in several ways:
·    The policy is not set in writing, and is vague; therefore, it could be viewed as too easily subject to alteration in order to accommodate organizations that reflect the personal values of the Board’s members, or to exclude groups that do not align with the Board members’ personal values.

·    The policy has not been announced in the local newspapers, on the Muhlenberg County School District web site, or anywhere else where the public might reasonably learn of it, or where nonprofit organizations other than the Gideons might learn of the opportunities it affords them to distribute material.

·    The policy as described by you and Mr. Richey does not have any discernible secular purpose, as per the first prong of the Lemon test (see Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 1971).  Indeed, the Board’s unanimous approval at the May 14 Board Meeting of a motion to “approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon’s organization,” the fact that the new policy remains unwritten and unannounced, and your own previous statements to local newspapers about the Board abandoning its previous policy only at the urging of the attorney for the school district, could together be interpreted by the courts as evidence that the new policy is not sincere, but rather a sham policy designed to allow the district to continue endorsing a specific religious message (see Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 2000) by providing the Gideons access to local schoolchildren.

Furthermore, the new policy may be incredibly controversial and/or divisive.  In order to implement the new policy, the Board of Education will place itself in the position of having to allow nonprofit organizations whose missions and literature are likely to be deemed offensive by many Muhlenberg County parents.  These organizations could potentially include the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Sacred Earth Alliance (neo-pagan), American Atheists, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation, of which I myself am a member.  Please review the enclosures, which include some sample “nontracts” that the Freedom from Religion Foundation distributes, as well as articles describing two different situations (in Buncombe County and Brunswick County, North Carolina) in which Boards of Education halted their plans to allow any religious literature on school property, rather than opening the door to pagan literature being distributed to students.
Please share this letter with the Board of Education.  I ask you to provide me with a written response as to whether the district intends to continue with its new policy.

Suzanne Lamb

A note about the enclosures referenced in the letter: while I can't reproduce the Freedom from Religion Foundation "nontracts," they are available for purchase here.  The Asheville Citizen-Times article about the Buncombe County, North Carolina controversy is available only as a paid service, but a relevant blog post that I also included with my letter can be read here.  An article and a blog post describing the situation in Brunswick County, which were among the enclosures, are available here and here.

The situation in Buncombe County, North Carolina played out this past spring.  Either the Muhlenberg County Board of Education and Superintendent didn't hear about it, or they felt that their actions were unlikely to generate a similar response. 

Let me be clear:  I don't think the ideal outcome is for the schools to have a slew of different groups showing up to distribute literature at every school function--and I'm not sure that having to compete with pagans and Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses and atheists is what the Gideons have in mind.  If our Board of Education wants to remain neutral on matters of religion, its best bet is not to let any groups use school events for religious proselytizing. 

I can only hope our Board members see the light.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Muhlenberg County Schools and the Gideon Problem

Though my kids don't attend our local public schools, I care about what goes on in them.  I think our public schools should be pleasant places that encourage critical thinking, individualized learning, democratic participation, and compassion.  I'm concerned about some trends in our Muhlenberg County schools, including their growing resemblance to minimum security prisons (requiring high school students to submit to drug testing in order to participate in school clubs, for example; and specifying that kindergarten students hold their hands behind their backs and "walk two white squares from the brown squares" when moving through the halls).  I'm also concerned about the lengths to which some of our school officials seem willing to go to keep Christian proselytizing alive in our district.

Last fall, the Muhlenberg County School District received a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a watchdog group for the separation of church and state, complaining that the Gideons had visited Longest Elementary fifth-grade classrooms to distribute bibles to the students and to urge them "to read and learn from the bible."  The FFRF had been notified of the Gideons' visit by a parent of one of the fifth-grade students.

Superintendent Dale Todd distanced himself and the Longest Elementary principal from the questionable activities, claiming in his written response to the FFRF attorney that "the principal was at a conference that day and not present at the school."  Todd also assured the FFRF attorney that he had "instructed all schools to not allow members of the Gideons International organization to come into the school and distribute Bibles on school property."  However, Todd later indicated to the local newspapers (whose archives are not available online for me to link to them) that he and the school board approved of the Gideons visiting classrooms; in fact, the visits were described as a longstanding tradition that neither Todd nor the school board wanted to end.  Todd explained that the only reason for doing so was that the attorney for the school district had assured them a legal fight would be expensive and nearly impossible to win.

Some local residents grumbled.  In the months that followed, one unhappy resident (who likely never read The Handmaid's Tale) wrote an op-ed letter blaming separation of church and state for a variety of social ills.  Another started a petition that showed a distressing ignorance of the constitutional issues at hand.  But the golden age of bible distribution in Muhlenberg County public schools seemed to be over.

Naturally, I was surprised to notice that the minutes from the May 14, 2012 Muhlenberg County Board of Education Meeting included unanimously-approved "plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization."  Would the board of a school district recently in hot water for violating the Establishment Clause make its support of the Gideons' mission a matter of public record?

Because the person who initiated the motion is no longer a member of the school board, I decided to contact board member Don Richey, who had seconded the motion.  I tried to obtain Richey's email address from the district office, only to learn from the board secretary that district policy didn't permit her to give it out.  She suggested I call Richey at his home number.

I called Richey and identified myself by name, noting that I was a citizen who liked to keep up with what was going on in our schools.  I asked Richey about the minutes from the May 14 meeting, reading verbatim the portion of the minutes that mentioned the Gideons.

Richey said of the motion, "As I recall, that was about our position, which is now that everyone should have equal opportunity.  Any group that wants to can pass out materials at a designated time."

I asked if by "designated time" he meant a specific event put together for the sole purpose of giving groups an opportunity to distribute materials. 

"No, no," he said.  When pressed for examples, he said that such times might be Reading Nights at the schools, or the upcoming Open Houses before fall semester begins. 

I asked if some kind of announcement would be made about this, and Richey said no, that groups would be allowed if they requested ahead of time to participate.  He said that bible distribution would no longer take place "during class time."

I asked if by "any group," the board meant religious groups specifically. 

Richey responded, "No, no--any group."  When asked if the board might object to some of the groups wanting to distribute material, Richey didn't answer the question.  Instead he said, "The law's the law.  We're about equal opportunity now."  He repeated that bibles would no longer be distributed in class.

One wonders why, if the Muhlenberg County Board of Education is truly interested in "equal opportunity," it is producing meeting minutes that speak specifically of "collaboration and efforts to support the Gideon's [sic] organization." 

I sent an email to Superintendent Dale Todd asking him to explain the district's current policy on the distribution of materials by the Gideons and other groups.  I will share his response when I receive it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Knitting, Knowing, and Cultivating Passions

I am learning how to knit.

This was not on my summer to-do list.  What was on my list was getting halfway through revisions to my novel.  And getting back to regular yoga practice.  And spending more time with the fiddle, which I began playing two years ago but have neglected the past several months.

Of course, being my children's learning facilitator/guide/partner is always on the list, which is why, when my super-crafty seven-year-old daughter wanted to sew with a machine, I signed her up for some sewing classes at the nearest fabric store.  While my husband and I often take turns serving as our children's "competence model," to borrow a term from unschooling writer Robyn Coburn, in this case there was simply no competence to model: I don't own a sewing machine, and have never even used one.  I drag out the needle and thread once every few months to sew on a button.

Hadley loved the sewing classes so much that she decided to spend the summer trying every single children's class the fabric store offered.  I negotiated her down to a slightly smaller, more affordable list of the classes that most appealed to her.  Knitting was one of them.

Fifteen minutes into the first of two knitting sessions, Hadley and the only other student, an eight-year-old girl, were discouraged; they hadn't expected it to be so tricky.  The teacher, a kind and patient expert knitter named Becky, said to me and the other mother, "You know, they will pick this up a lot easier if you learn, too."

I had been afraid she was going to say that.

It's not that I'm completely uncrafty.  Though my sewing skills are a bit limited, I adore weaving potholders on those nifty little metal looms, and I went through a counted-cross-stitch phase that began when I was nine and lasted until I was thirteen.  But knitting?  It just seemed so big league.

I'd considered learning once, years ago, after it was recommended by a therapist I was seeing during the lows of our infertility struggle and the constant anxiety that accompanied my medically complicated first pregnancy.  Afraid you're never going to get pregnant?  Knit!  On bedrest to stave off premature labor?  Why not knit with all that free time?  The therapist even loaned me some needles and patterns, which I looked over for about fifteen minutes before deciding I wasn't up to it.  Instead I spent weeks poring over The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding  and Your Baby and Child from Birth to Age Five and watched, for the first time, The Godfather and its sequels and a mountain of less memorable movies that my husband brought home from the video store.

But there was my daughter in knitting class, imploring me with her huge brown eyes, and the other mother, who had snatched up an extra pair of teacher Becky's knitting needles and, after glancing at the handout on the casting-on process, was now casually whipping loops onto her left needle.

I walked out into the store and bought the big needles and oversized yarn from the class supply list.  Becky suggested I let her cast on for me, so that I could start right in on the knit stitch.  She modeled the stitch several times, but when I attempted to imitate her, I'd insert the needle in the wrong place, or the loops would slip off the end of the needle, or I'd lean over to help Hadley and forget where I was with my own work.  Then I'd need Becky to get me back on track.  By the end of the session I had four imperfect rows of stitches.

When we returned two days later for the second and final session, Hadley had a few rows of knitting to show for her efforts.  I had a tangled mess of yarn and empty needles, having made some mistake eight rows in and, in the process of trying to fix it, pulled the whole thing apart.  (I tried not to notice that what the other mother brought back practically qualified as a blanket.)  Fortunately, I was more rested than the first afternoon, and I'd had more time to adjust to the idea that I would be knitting.  I also had an obscenely large latte in hand.

After multiple demonstrations and attempts, and the entire enormous latte, I finally got the hang of casting on.  Then I caught on to the knit stitch.  As my hands began knowing what to do, I realized that knitting might be something I could enjoy for my own reasons.

Before we left the store, Hadley and I walked back to the yarn section and examined the various types to see which we liked.  I traded in the scratchy acrylic starter yarn for a super-soft skein of organic cotton.  I also picked out some smaller needles.  Hadley decided to stay with the large needles and yarn, but she picked a new color--a lovely mulberry shade--that she hopes to work into a scarf.

Two evenings ago I finished my first simple project: a small purse for Hadley.  Yesterday morning I sat down with the knitting books we checked out from the library and attempted to do the purl stitch.  I'm happy to report that I had some success before I had to stop and help my five-year-old prepare lunch.

Knowing how to purl will give me access to a whole new world of knitting projects, and allow me to model purling to Hadley, if and when she's ready to use it.  My knitting competence--however little or much I have by then--will be available to her in the same way as my competence at calculating sales tax and baking bread and resolving health insurance billing problems and pronouncing the names of Greek goddesses.

The idea that people are learning all the time is central to unschooling.  Instead of dividing children's activities into categories like "educational" and "recreational," unschoolers strive to take all of their children's interests seriously.  Reading a classic novel is not regarded as an inherently better use of time than playing with Legos; a fascination with Beyblades receives as much parental support as a fascination with The Scholastic Atlas of the United States.  A list of my three children's interests through the years would include--in addition to sewing, knitting, Legos, Beyblades, and The Scholastic Atlas of the United States--construction vehicles, the Eiffel Tower, Pokemon, chess, Barbie dolls, marble runs, rocks, Caillou, the First Amendment, face painting, woodworking, satellite dishes, surveillance cameras, the Titanic, Star Wars, Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions, constellations, The Kentucky Driver Manual, and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Some of these interests have sparked related interests, some have grown into passions, and some will surely accompany my children all the way to adulthood.

I've learned from all of them, even when I wasn't expecting to.

Hadley's first piece of knitting, which makes a perfect rug for Ariel

My first project: a little purse for Hadley

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why I Can't Stand Those Pledge of Allegiance Memes Circulating on Facebook

Maybe it's because Independence Day is upon us that the Pledge of Allegiance memes are once again making the rounds on Facebook.  Perhaps you've seen one of them in your own news feed.

One version reads:


Another version replaces the actual pledge with an illustration of schoolchildren saluting the flag.  The caption reads, "We no longer do this for . . . fear . . . of offending someone!!! Let's see how many Americans will re-post this."

I want to go on record as saying that I find these memes aggravating.  (Can we say excessive capitalization and exclamation points?  Garbled syntax?  And what's up with that very weird use of ellipses?)  I also find them dishonest.

A whopping thirty-six states require public schools to lead recitation of the pledge.  Another six states give schools the option of requiring it.  Clearly, it's absurd to claim that "we no longer do" the pledge.  Further, many who have objected to the pledge being used in public schools (which isn't quite the same as being offended by it) have done so because of the phrase "under God," which wasn't part of the original pledge at all.  It was added in 1954, sixty-two years after the original pledge was written, during the fear-mongering era of McCarthyism, when invoking God was a handy way for those with political ambitions to prove they were hard on Communism.  My own father grew up saying the pledge without the "under God" insertion.  Anyone who is advocating a true return to tradition would more sensibly call for a return to the secular version of the pledge.

Because we are unschoolers, my children do not say the pledge of allegiance at school.  And, unlike some homeschoolers, they don't line up and say it at home.  (Some homeschoolers also pledge allegiance to a Christian flag, as depicted in the documentary Jesus Camp, but that is another story.)  Personally, my husband and I are not fans of forcing kids to pledge allegiance to anything.  Those who have spent time with us know that we are kooky in that way.  As part of living in our house, our children are, however, part of an ongoing conversation about the history of this great country and the Bill of Rights and the real meaning of democracy and freedom and standing up for one's convictions even when it makes one very unpopular.  I have, for the record, never known one of my children to respond to someone of a different opinion by telling that person to get the f*** out of the country, like the friend-of-a-friend who defended one of those Facebook memes.

And, just in case those circulating the memes didn't know, the pledge's author, Francis Bellamy, was a socialist.