NEWS- No flier zone: Time cited in new 'backpack mail' ban
This fall, the load of papers coming home with Albemarle County kids in backpack mail will be lighter: no Boy Scouts recruitments, no YMCA sign-ups, no mention of vacation Bible school. And no fliers touting atheist camp.
In the end, distributing religious and nonreligious materials through the schools was miring teachers, principals, administrators, and the Albemarle School Board in controversy. And a majority of School Board members wants to eliminate any fliers that aren't school- or government-related at its June 28 meeting.
"We want to get back some of the instructional time that's been lost," says School Board Chair Sue Friedman.
The brouhaha stems from a 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling– Child Evangelism Fellowship v. Montgomery County Schools– that says schools that allow nonprofits like Little League and Boy Scouts to send home fliers can't discriminate against religious nonprofits that want to send home Good News Club fliers.
About a year ago, Mat Staver with the conservative Christian Liberty Counsel brought that ruling to Albemarle's attention when a local administrator refused to allow a student to distribute a vacation Bible school flier. The county began allowing religious activity fliers but promised to revisit the issue in a year. And over the past school year, a Pagan flier in December and one for the atheist-oriented Camp Quest this spring sparked more controversy.
Superintendent Pam Moran told the School Board her email inbox shut down when a national organization– Vision America headquartered in Lufkin, Texas– got wind of the "beyond belief" Camp Quest fliers and flooded her with messages protesting school-abetted "atheistic indoctrination." Technicians had to work over the weekend to get her email back up and running.
Friedman denies the Camp Quest flier spurred the board to ban all fliers.
"For me, it wasn't about the content," Friedman explains. "At the end of the day, we had to make sure our highly qualified teachers were doing highly qualified instruction."
That's what the teachers wanted all along. "Last year, 16 out of 16 elementary principals recommended we not do this," admits Friedman. "We did not listen."
The School Board looked at the fliers as a community service, and the idea of a child in the rural area who wouldn't otherwise know about, say, soccer leagues, was "persuasive," says Friedman.
Two School Board members– Brian Wheeler and Jon Stokes– argued for continuing to let private fliers go home in backpacks. "I think it's an important service to families of Albemarle County schools that allowed us to be a community," says Stokes.
Stokes says that fewer fliers went home this past school year than in 2005-2006, and he disputes the notion that distributing fliers takes up too much instructional time
"I asked my son how he got his," says Stokes. "The teacher puts them on the table and says 'Take one.'" And teachers still have to hand out school and government fliers, which cuts into instructional time.
Stokes sees the matter as a freedom of speech issue and a "teachable moment." But even he concedes the fliers have taken up School Board time. "That's not the reason for being on the School Board," he says. "I'd rather deal with educational issues."
Secular humanist Mary Ellen Sikes has mixed feelings. A Camp Quest volunteer, she prepared the notice to go out through the schools.
"It was extremely disruptive," she acknowledges. "But it seemed more about the burden on the School Board."
She worries that minority viewpoints, such as the notion that human decency can be learned from places other than a 2,000-year-old story collection, will be lost in the controversy over the flier policy.
"I feel sad because it was changed to accommodate prejudice rather than by formulating a policy based on what they feel are the needs of students to get information about community events," says Sikes, who attended the June 14 School Board meeting, where there was a "heated" discussion.
After Vision America, a conservative Christian organization, urged its followers to "protest atheist indoctrination in schools" with this email, Albemarle changed its policy and now allows only school or government fliers to go home with students– much to the chagrin of nonprofits like the YMCA.
SCREEN CAPTURE FROM THE VISION AMERICA WEBSITE
There's one issue Sikes feels the School Board sidestepped: reports on conservative websites of Albemarle teachers who did not distribute the Camp Quest fliers because they found them "offensive" and "outrageous."
School administrator Diane Behrens told the board she did not find any evidence of teachers not distributing the fliers, according to Sikes.
"We're very skeptical of, if you'll pardon the pun, 'a good faith' investigation," says Sikes. She reports board member Diantha McKeel saying in January that she had spoken to teachers who have not sent home fliers that they're not comfortable with, so Sikes wonders why the central office was unable find any of those teachers. McKeel and Behrens did not return phone calls by press time.
For organizations that have traditionally used backpack mail to spread word of their activities, the change in policy is particularly painful.
"Most YMCAs rely on getting their information out through schools because most of our programs are geared to kids," says the Y's new CEO, Bill Blewitt, who was unaware of the county's impending policy change until contacted by a reporter. "It certainly will be detrimental to us how we get information out."