Friday, October 26, 2012

Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist: Coming to a School Near You

As readers may have guessed, I didn't receive a single response to the questions I asked of our Muhlenberg County school board candidates.  *(UPDATE: Since this posting, the letter I sent to Darrell Bowers has been returned marked "no such number, unable to forward," although the address on the envelope was the one listed on the Secretary of State's website.)*  This is disappointing, and I can't help but wonder aloud why all of the candidates were unwilling to respond.  My guess is that it seemed politically safer not to.  But how can one claim to be a voice for local citizens when he or she refuses to answer, even partially, some very earnest questions asked respectfully by a local citizen? 


In other news, I--your friendly neighborhood atheist--will soon be appearing at some of Muhlenberg County's public schools.  Specifically, I will be distributing literature from the Freedom from Religion Foundation at school-sponsored events.  This is the somewhat prolonged outcome of my accidental discovery this spring that the Gideons, booted from Muhlenberg County classrooms in 2011, were about to be allowed back into the schools (at afterschool events instead of during class time).  The complete history of my involvement is here, here, and here.

This is the email that I sent to school principals on October 15:
Dear [Principal]:
I am writing to request permission to distribute literature at [school name] during upcoming afterschool events.  I have been informed by Superintendent Dale Todd that any nonprofit organization may distribute literature at reading nights, open houses, and other official afterschool functions.  I am a local member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit group dedicated to the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state and to educating the public on matters relating to nontheism.
Please send me a list of the remaining events/dates during this school year that are available for this purpose.  I intend to distribute the Freedom from Religion Foundation publications Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children—a fun book that allows children of all ages to explore myths like Santa Claus and compare them with ideas like the existence of God—and Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.  I will also be handing out bookmarks and "nontracts" promoting nontheism. The links that follow provide more information on these publications.
Thanks in advance for your assistance.  I look forward to hearing from you.  
Suzanne Lamb
The request was granted by all of the principals who received it, and depending on the school, I was either assigned an upcoming event or given a choice of events to attend.  (One middle school principal said I would have to wait until next fall's open house, as his school didn't have any other suitable events this year.)

A separate request to distribute literature, submitted by Western Kentucky University's Secular Student Alliance, was also granted.

I want to commend the school principals and the superintendent for making good on the school board's claim that when it voted to "approve plans for collaboration and efforts to support the Gideons [sic] organization" at the May 14 board meeting, it was actually creating a limited open forum that would allow any nonprofit group to distribute literature at afterschool functions. 

As anyone who regularly follows these types of stories can tell you, this is not how things usually turn out.  Many school districts maintain longstanding, privileged arrangements with the Gideons or other evangelical groups until someone complains; then officials say that, silly people, anyone can distribute literature, while crossing their fingers (or praying) that no groups representing viewpoints other than their own actually take them up on the offer.  As I noted in an earlier post, two North Carolina school boards decided to can literature distributions altogether after local residents tested so-called "open" policies by asking to distribute pagan literature.

If local residents are unhappy about my, or the Secular Student Alliance's, appearances at Muhlenberg County school functions, they can ask the board to craft a policy that prohibits all outside groups from distributing literature at school events.  School districts are in no way required by law to establish limited open forums.

While the Muhlenberg County school board has made much progress in complying with the law as it pertains to religion in the schools, it still has one practice to address.  The board's tradition of beginning school board meetings with prayer is in direct conflict with the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals' ruling in Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999), which found the practice to be a violation of the Establishment Clause.  As Kentucky is in the Sixth Circuit, that decision is considered binding.  Neither asking a student to lead the prayer, nor reminding those in attendance that the prayer is voluntary, makes the practice permissible.

I am so grateful for those friends and acquaintances--some of them Christians--who support my involvement with this issue.  And to my new atheist, agnostic, and freethinking friends in Muhlenberg and surrounding counties: your presence strengthens me. 


I am switching to moderated comments for this blog--at least for the time being.  This means that I will be reviewing comments before they are posted.  I am making this change because a few recent comments, which I have deleted, crossed a very obvious line of decency. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Questions for School Board Candidates

My interest in education is both philosophical and practical.  I have long been fascinated with how people learn.  My mother and one sister are former public school teachers, and my other sister teaches at a private school.  My professional experience includes teaching college English, helping nontraditional college students document their life learning for college credit, and assisting high school students from low-income families in preparing academically for college.  I am the mother of three school-age children who are learning at home but may one day choose to attend public schools.  I am an advocate for the constitutional principle of church-state separation and for children's civil rights, both of which have obvious educational implications.

I have compiled a list of ten questions for the Muhlenberg County school board candidates running for election (or re-election) next month.  I am mailing the list to each candidate with a request for a response to be shared on this blog.  I have no idea if any candidates will respond, but I hope that some will, because as far as I can tell, no one else is asking most of these questions.

If you are a local reader with different questions, I encourage you to contact the candidates yourself.  They are listed at the bottom of this post.

Questions for Candidates:
  1. Do you support continuing the district’s drug testing program, which requires all high school students to submit to random drug testing in order to participate in extra-curricular activities and to park on campus?  If so, what do you make of a large-scale national study showing no difference in drug use between schools that use drug testing and those that do not? 
  2. The current school board recently voted against videotaping its meetings, which would allow citizens to view meetings on cable access.  Given the fact that it is difficult for many people to attend the five p.m. meetings, and considering that meeting minutes include only board decisions and not complete discussions of issues, should the meetings be videotaped?
  3. Do you support the district's continued use of programs like Character Counts! and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), given that these programs have been widely criticized for promoting unquestioning obedience to authority as the ultimate value?  (See, for example, Alfie Kohn's "How Not to Teach Values" and Chris Liebig's "Sacrificing Thought for 'Good Behavior.'")
  4. Our district's school board meetings are opened with prayer.  Do you think our school board should continue this practice, given the fact that the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in Coles Coles v. Cleveland Board of Education (1999), found beginning school board meetings with prayer to be a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause?  If you support continuing the prayers, do you think local taxpayers should be willing to pay plaintiffs' legal fees should the practice be successfully challenged in the courts?  (Note: Kentucky is in the sixth circuit.)
  5. Do you approve of the current school board’s recent decision to create a limited public forum that allows all non-profit groups to distribute literature at official afterschool functions?  Should religious organizations such as the Gideons be allowed to distribute bibles at these events if that requires the district to allow all groups--including those representing Muslim, pagan, and atheist viewpoints, among others--to distribute literature to students?
  6. Of a case in which a New Jersey public school teacher claimed that evolution and the Big Bang are not scientific, the famous American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said, "This case is not about the need to separate church and state; it's about the need to separate ignorant, scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers."  Does the teaching of creationism have any place in our district’s classrooms?
  7. What stance would you like to see the school board take on school policies that reward perfect student attendance with special picnics, pizza parties, etc., considering that such policies encourage parents to send their children to school sick in order to avoid missing out on these events? 
  8. Many parents are concerned that the increasing use of high-stakes standardized testing (to evaluate students, teachers, and schools) is compromising important educational values.  Would you support a policy that would allow parents in the district to opt their children out of such testing?  
  9. Parents in our district who homeschool their children provide tax support for our schools, and may be the kind of involved, supportive parents who can make positive contributions to the school district.  As such, do you support allowing homeschooled students in our district to participate in extra-curricular activities? 
  10. Our district’s schools are very different from the schools most of us attended as children.  Students are surrounded by armed security personnel and security cameras that record their every move, and subjected to unprecedented amounts of standardized testing.  What can be done to make the schools in our district more humane environments for our students?

Muhlenberg County Board of Education Candidates:

Kevin Rice, 2nd district
Margaret Ann Williams, 2nd district
Sylvester "Sly" Johnson, 3rd district
Dr. Kelly Tarter, 3rd district
Scott Bivins, 3rd district
Darrell Bowers, 5th district
Jerry Winters, 5th district