The Chippewa Valley ACLU Chapter supports educational freedom in controversy over book and in-class discussion of Islam. There is a public forum discussing this issue at 7:00pm at Menomonie High School, on Monday, May 15, 2017. The Chapter sent the following letter to the Menomonie Schools Superintendent Zydowsky:
May 10, 2017
Dear Superintendent Zydowsky:
We are writing you about the action plan on religious learning in school presented at the Menomonie school board meeting on May 8, 2017.
We understand the events leading up to the presentation of the action plan as this: a parent of a student in a Menomonie Middle School teacher’s eighth-grade class lodged a complaint about an activity pertaining to the religion of Islam. The activity involved students reading a book written by Malala Yousafzai (I Am Malala) and also a visit from a Muslim guest who explained some basic tenets of Islam, the religious context of Yousafzai’s life. Based on our discussion with members of your school district and a story in the Leader-Telegram, we wish to bring to your attention some irregularities in the handling of this complaint.
We understand that the parents’ complaint resulted in a public discussion at the April 24, 2017 school board meeting. However, this item of business is not listed on the agenda for that meeting. The topic of the discussion was the place of religious diversity in a public school curriculum. We are concerned that an important discussion of the issue occurred without notifying constituents of their right to participate.
On the agenda for that same school board meeting, there is an item to move into closed session to hear the complaints and “Preliminarily Consider the Investigation of Charges Against Specific Persons.” While we understand that the Board went into closed session to protect the privacy of those involved, we wonder whether the school board is prepared to offer closed-session meetings to any parent with a complaint about their child’s curriculum. Moreover, the May 8, 2017 meeting of the school board included discussion of an “Action Plan Related to Religion in Our School.” Again, we ask you to consider whether every parent’s complaint about curriculum can expect to be given similar accommodation by the school board. If not, we would like to know what makes this situation exceptional.
Pursuant to items from the action plan reported by the Leader-Telegram, we applaud you for pledging to provide professional development for administrators and teachers on the “basic legal standards” of learning about religion in public schools. We suggest that you begin with the Supreme Court decision in Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963), which holds that teaching about religion is not a violation of rights when it happens “objectively as part of a secular program of education.” Id. At 225.
At the same time, we are concerned by the vagueness of the language that “appropriate notification” of such curriculum will be “provided to parents when necessary.” If this means that parents may “opt out” their children from certain parts of curriculum and be accommodated with “alternative learning activities,” we would like to know the policy by which administrators will decide which requests will be honored and which will not. We see this new policy as a significant new burden upon your teachers, especially if any parent with a complaint about curriculum is entitled an alternative learning activity for their child.
We are also curious about the purpose for the community forum on the teaching of religion planned for May 15, 2017. Will it be to discuss the details of the school board’s action plan? Will the event be widely promoted to ensure that diverse constituencies can attend with a familiarity of the history of this issue?
Lastly, we wish to commend Jason Collins, the teacher of the class, for his commitment to preparing his students to live ethically within a diverse society. Moreover, we believe that Principal Stacey Everson acted well within her rights in supporting Mr. Collins, especially given the reasonable and constitutional nature of the curricular unit.
Thank you for your attention to our concerns about equal protection concerns related to this issue. If we can be of any further assistance in your adjudication of the matter, please do not hesitate to contact us.
The Board of the Chippewa Valley Civil Liberties Union