Concerned parents should follow fair, clear route

Sunday, March 30, 1997

“What is the best way for a parent to express concern about a school practice that he or she opposes without creating a hostile attitude toward the child on the part of school officials?”
Judy Behnke, Denver

If the objectionable practice is in the classroom, the parent should go first to the teacher involved. In my experience, most teachers and administrators will do what they can to accommodate the concerns of parents without making the child uncomfortable. If the response by the teacher is unsatisfactory, parents should go next to the principal and then on up the chain of responsibility.

How far teachers or administrators can go in response to parental concern depends, in part, on the nature of the objection. A parent seeking an alternative assignment to a particular story or lesson should be easily and routinely accommodated. When requests are based on religious convictions, the school may be legally required to excuse the student.

It's another matter, however, when a parent wants a book or assignment banned for all students. When that happens, the teacher may have to refer the issue to the appropriate school official or committee for a decision.

Recently, a few parents in a southern California school district objected to a novel on a reading list for fifth-graders, saying that it contained material inappropriate for that age group. Other parents liked the book and wanted to keep it in the curriculum. The controversy was addressed by a representative committee consisting of educators and parents. In this case, the committee agreed with the objecting parents and recommended that the book in question be moved to a higher grade level. This solution was acceptable to all sides.

When a parent objects to something a teacher or the school is doing that the parent believes violates the law (e.g., promoting or denigrating religion), there's great potential for conflict and backlash. A North Carolina couple recently complained that their daughter's social studies teacher was denigrating religion by making disparaging remarks when their child professed religious belief. On the other side of the country, in southern California, a few parents provoked the anger of many community members when they objected to the devotional nature of the school Christmas play. In both cases, the objecting parents were afraid their children would suffer because of school officials' anger toward the parents.

Unfortunately, in the midst of a crisis it is difficult to avoid tensions and hostility, some of which may well affect the children. That is why it's vital that school districts include parents in the decision-making before a crisis erupts. Public schools should be models of the democratic process when they develop policies and curricula.

Be pro-active. Encourage your school district to create policies and procedures for addressing parental complaints and concerns. At the very least, every public school should have a clear policy that outlines how to accommodate requests for excusal from portions of the curriculum or school activities. And when parents want to change a school practice or policy that affects all students, there should be a fair and open process for making that decision.

Underlying all the procedures and policies must be a willingness by school officials and parents to work closely together for academic excellence, fairness and shared civic values in our nation's schools.