Should groups visit with students? Behind the Headlines

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— Q. You have taken issue with the presence of adult representatives of religious groups who have interacted with students and distributed information at the middle school under a longstanding school policy. What prompted your complaint?

A. Well, it sure wasn't some twisted desire to become the poster boy in a local holy war.

I got involved because of a series of events that were troubling.

First, was when kids started coming home from middle school talking about the 'nice people' who were visiting at lunch.

Next, it was a flyer for a dance at the school that neglected to disclose it was a church-sponsored dance -- not a school dance at all.

Of course, the "fast food enticement episode" where adults from the church brought McDonald's into the closed lunch -- that seemed too close to "trolling for children using french fries as bait" for my sense of taste (if you remember school lunches, the smell of fries would attract anyone).

Then, the discovery that literature really wasn't being distributed as per administrative policy F-15. Instead, it was a youth pastor and other young adults from a church regularly "hanging out" with a group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders so they could "make friends."

Here was a captive group of kids (they have to be in school by law) being regularly visited during school hours by a paid employee of a church. It didn't seem like a fair situation. Remember, we're dealing with a building full of people with at best an eighth-grade education -- a group with very limited life experience who is really easily influenced. It brings to mind the military term that's also used in marketing "target-rich environment."

Q. The school district argues that because it has a limited open forum, the federal Equal Access Act prevents the district from prohibiting access to the schools by religious organizations. How do you respond to that argument?

A. I think they're getting bad legal advice. Or it could be the school board really doesn't have a policy that fits what's going on at the middle school and this is the best they can come up with.

The federal Equal Access Act is pretty easy to understand.

The EAA requires secondary public schools that meet certain criteria to treat all student-initiated groups equally, regardless of religious, political, philosophical or other orientation of the groups.

This means if a school opens its facilities after school to any student-led and run non-curriculum related group, it has let all student-led and run groups in after or before school; even religious ones.

If a group of students wants to form their own student-run club and wants to meet after school in a classroom, the school can't say no if they've let other non-curricular groups in before. The school can't say no on the basis of the students' viewpoint. The problem is, the Equal Access Act doesn't apply to the current middle school situation. It doesn't come close to meeting the EAA's intent or requirements.

The EAA is intended to ensure students rights, not adults.

If you want to look at the administrative policy about distributing/posting material, the Equal Access Act or sample policies from other school districts, they're all available at http://troeger_jeffry.tripod.com.

Q. Do you think there is an acceptable compromise to this issue? If so what would you propose as a compromise?

A. Well, I'm not sure that compromise is an option anymore. We got slam-dunked pretty badly at last week's work session. I just wish we could have come up with something where adults visiting the schools would check their religious, political and personal beliefs at the door.

Something where students could run their own group after or before school, like the law says.

Now we've got a situation where the board has basically said just about any well-behaved adult group is welcome in the middle school during the day. Have they thought this through?

There's a whole bunch of folks we won't be able to keep out. Maybe the whole thing will come into focus when someone like the Raelins, the flying saucer, clone-cult, shows up just to be 'buds' with kids.

Do we really want the middle school arcade populated with groups of adults trying to sell their particular religious, political and personal beliefs; like some timeshare gauntlet you pass through in a Mexican resort airport?

Q. The school board indicated unanimously that it supports the existing policy. Do you or others who have complained plan a response? What will that response be?

A. I don't know. I hate settling disputes using the legal system. Of course it's sometimes less painful than jousting or trial by fire.

I'm probably rationalizing after getting thumped, but some significant things have been accomplished. Parents are now aware of what's going on at the middle school.

The schools have been forced to develop procedural guidelines.

And I think the church group knows people are watching. That's a start anyway.

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