Parents more supportive when schools keep them informed

Sunday, November 8, 1998

When parents heard about the “hot, sexy, and safer” assembly, many were outraged. The purpose was to promote AIDS awareness. But the content — everything from the lewd language to a student volunteer licking an oversized condom — conflicted with the religious convictions of some parents and students.

What angered the parents even more than the content was that they had been kept in the dark concerning the program. No parental notification. No opportunity to opt their kids out.

Incidents like this are all too common around the nation. Just last week, a Rhode Island parent complained that she didn't know what extracurricular clubs her child was being exposed to in school. The week before, a parent in California wanted to know why his son's high school teacher showed R-rated movies without notifying parents.

Parents — and not just religious parents — are increasingly vocal about their rights. They're reminding school officials that the Supreme Court has long recognized that parents have the right “to direct the upbringing and education” of their children. And religious parents are asserting their religious-liberty right under the First Amendment to have their children excused from activities that offend their faith.

But do these claims hold up in court? Recent cases send mixed signals. While judges will often defer to educators when it comes to curricular issues, the courts are most likely to support the school when an excusal system is in place.

On the First Amendment front, the Supreme Court has weakened religious-freedom protections over the past decade. But when a “free exercise” of religion claim is linked to a free-speech or parental-rights claim, the courts are more likely to take it seriously.

Whatever the courts say or don't say, smart administrators and teachers listen carefully to parents, especially when they bring a claim of conscience. Opt-out requests shouldn't be a problem. Most teachers should routinely excuse a child from classroom discussions or activities when the request focuses on a specific discussion, assignment or activity. Only when the request is so pervasive that granting it would cripple the curriculum should teachers say no.

But parents can't ask to excuse their children from something they don't know about. If public schools are going to offer AIDS-awareness assemblies or show R-rated movies, they should notify parents first, giving them a chance to opt their kids out.

Some schools go even further by giving parents an opportunity to “opt-in” rather than opt-out. This means that parents have to sign a permission slip for their child to participate in a program that the school thinks might be controversial.

Many parents like the opt-in solution, especially when applied to extracurricular activities. If students must obtain parental permission to start or join an extracurricular club, they are less likely to get involved in activities their parents find objectionable.

Critics of opt-in policies for student clubs point out that parental permission will inhibit the freedom of students to form all kinds of clubs — the very freedom the Equal Access Act was designed to promote. While that's undoubtedly true, the greater risk is to keep parents uninformed. After all, parents and schools are (or should be) in partnership. The public schools are no place to hide from parents what students are doing.

The effort to inform parents, whether through opt-out or opt-in policies, can be time-consuming and sometimes frustrating for school officials. But it's well worth the trouble. By making every effort to accommodate the convictions of parents, teachers and administrators not only uphold the spirit of the First Amendment, they also build support for public education.