Board to mull policy | SteamboatToday.com
Susan Cunningham

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Board to mull policy

School materials-distribution plan will be considered

The Steamboat Springs School Board on Monday will consider a revised policy about distributing religious and other materials on schools grounds.

The revised policy would allow people who aren’t students to distribute noncurricular materials at designated places inside the high school and at designated places outside elementary and middle schools. Under the suggested policy, people would be able to distribute materials a half-hour before and after classes at all schools and during lunch at the high school.

The materials-distribution policy originally was adopted in 1987 but has since been updated. It came under fire a few years ago after a dispute about church leaders who were hanging out with middle school students during lunch.

It was questioned again earlier this year when local members of The Gideons International set up a small table displaying Bibles at Steamboat Springs Middle School. Students could take the books if they wanted.

School Board members are scheduled to discuss the revised policy Monday and could take a vote or table a decision until a later meeting.

“(The revised policy is) not that different,” School Board President Paula Stephenson said. “It clarifies the policy so it’s more understandable.”

Stephenson said she didn’t have concerns with the last version of the policy, which she said was well-written and did the job.

School Board member Jeff Troeger had concerns with that version, and he was one of the most outspoken critics during the earlier disputes.

As of Friday afternoon, he had yet to see the most recent revision. But, he had considered a draft revision at the School Board’s last meeting and said he feels more comfortable with the revised policy than with the 2003 policy.

Troeger still has overall concerns with the policy.

“I’m concerned about having adults hanging out in our schools unsupervised,” Troeger said. “I’m not sure about the wisdom of something like that.”

There are a lot of places where adults can hand out literature or talk with people, he said.

“I never quite understood why they needed to be in the schools,” he said.

Richard Lyons, the school district’s attorney who drafted the revision, said the 2003 policy is defective in some areas and ambiguous in others. The goal of the revision was to bring it into conformance with current case law.

One problem with the 2003 policy is that it separates religious materials from other publications, Lyons said. The law specifically says that religious materials have to be handled the same way as other materials, he said.

A school has to decide to be a limited open forum, in which all appropriate materials can be posted or disseminated, or it cannot allow distribution of any materials at all, he said.

Another problem with the current policy is that it combines distribution by students and nonstudents. There are separate legal standards for those groups, Lyons said, and students have more protected expressive rights.

Many school districts have developed polices very similar to Steamboat’s, he said.

The policy is a good preventative measure, Lyons said. It is necessary to guide administration officials about how to handle material distribution. Without it, administrators may allow distribution or posting on a case-by-case basis, which lends itself to discrimination, he said.

Lyons’ revised policy actually is two policies: one addressing distribution and posting of noncurricular materials by nonstudents and one addressing distribution and positing of noncurricular materials by students.

The proposed policy for students is similar to that for non-students, but students at all the schools can distribute materials in schools in designated places and during lunch.

School Board member Pat Gleason said that because the policy points to issues of free speech and separation of church and state, it was important to have the district’s attorney make sure the policy is legally correct.

He agreed that the proposed revision is not much different from the existing policy.

The question before the School Board is about the community’s values and desires related to such distribution, Gleason said. He was not sure whether Monday night’s discussion could start any intense debate.

“This was a pretty hot-button topic within the community, and we spent hours and hours with it,” Gleason said, referring to discussions that took place a few years ago.

He said he feels the existing policy seems to fall more or less in line with the community’s interest.

The consideration of a revised policy comes at a time when the School Board is looking to fill two vacancies. One was left by Michael Loomis, who recently moved out of the 5th Director District. The other will be left by Vice President Tami Havener of the 1st Director District, but she has agreed to stay on the School Board until Loomis’ position is filled.

Havener said Thursday that she will attend the meeting and that she was in favor of the current draft revision.