Saturday, September 17, 2005
The Steamboat Springs School Board is scheduled to vote next week on a change to its policies regarding the distribution of materials in schools.
As it stands, the new policy would set specific guidelines for when and where adults not associated with the schools can distribute non-curricular material to students on school grounds.
We agree that the policy should change, but not in the way that is being proposed. Rather, we urge the School Board to consider closing school buildings to adults who aren't associated with the school district. If board members think taking such action is too drastic, then consider this alternative: Hold an annual activities fair on each campus, where organizations can set up booths to distribute information. The activities fair could be held in the gym after school, when parents could accompany their children.
That, it seems, is the best way to handle who gets to market what to our children while they're at school.
The distribution of materials policy has been a source of controversy in the past because groups have used it to distribute religious materials in the middle school. A representative of a local church and Young Life, a Christian youth group, used the policy to meet with students during lunch at the middle school, and Gideons International has used the policy to make Bibles available to middle school students.
Some parents have taken offense to the presence of religious groups in the schools. The board's refusal to change the policy prompted one -- Jeff Troeger -- to seek and win election to the board.
Troeger opposes the new revisions to the policy, saying he disagrees with the "all or nothing" concept. He thinks that religious groups can and should be treated differently than other groups.
But the First Amendment and case law are not on Troeger's side. The First Amendment does not just prevent Congress from establishing a religion. It also forbids laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Rulings on religion in schools have made clear that school officials may not compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities and that they may not discourage such activities, either. Schools that open their campuses to outside organizations may not discriminate against groups based on religion. Thus, if the school district wants to give Routt County 4-H or the Winter Sports Club access to students at school, it must provide the same access to the Gideons or other religious groups.
Of course, it also opens the door for all sorts of other groups -- Planned Parenthood, Atheists and various corporations, for example -- to have access to our children at school. That's the reality of this policy.
For the past several years, the School Board has debated this policy several times and gone to rather extraordinary lengths to keep the district's campuses open to people whose sole mission is to peddle something -- an activity, a product or a belief -- to our children. This exercise has not been a good use of district resources.
It's time for the board to quit trying to tweak this policy and either toss it altogether or move to a much more controlled environment, such as an activities fair. It's time to stop the marketing in our schools and focus on what really matters -- educating.