Schools must model democracy to teach it effectively

Sunday, October 29, 2000

Here's a frightening thought: The schools where we educate for democratic citizenship are often among the least democratic places in our society.

An urgent telephone call this week reminded me how disconnected our
public schools can become from their civic mission. A New Jersey school board
member called seeking advice on how to convince his fellow board members to
distribute U.S. Department of Education guidelines on student religious
expression in schools.

Apparently, a majority of the board opposes informing community
members about the guidelines. Why? Because if parents and kids learn about
their rights, they might decide to exercise them.

As absurd as this sounds, it's not hard to figure out why the board
members and administrators are so skittish. They're responsible for maintaining
safety and discipline in the schools at a time when the larger society is often
unsafe and undisciplined. “Rights talk” alarms many school officials,
especially when it's unaccompanied by any discussion of civic

When religion is involved, the fear cuts even deeper. Because of our
nation's long history of conflict over religion in public schools, board
members don't want to do anything that might stir up trouble. The specter of
kids forming religious clubs, handing out religious literature or otherwise
exercising their rights in schools strikes many school officials as a harbinger
of conflict and controversy.

In the face of all this, what's the best advice for that New Jersey
school board? Answer: Hand out the guidelines. And train the teachers and
administrators to implement them.

Is that risky? Sure. But the greater risk lies in not informing staff,
students and parents of what is and isn't permissible under current law.

I can take you to scores of school districts that have been pro-active
in disseminating information and developing clear, community-supported
religious-liberty guidelines. Not only do these districts have far fewer
lawsuits and conflicts, they also have parents' trust and support.

A district that keeps its head in the sand hoping to avoid conflict is
a district that will soon land in court. Most of the current fights and
lawsuits over religion in the schools are in communities where parents and
students don't know the First Amendment guidelines and where teachers and
administrators operate in the dark.

What if the New Jersey board doesn't buy this argument and persists in
avoiding religious-liberty issues in their schools?

My colleague, religious-liberty attorney Oliver Thomas, offers a
follow-up suggestion (with tongue firmly in cheek): If the board votes down the
motion to inform kids and parents of their First Amendment rights, why not just
delete the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights from the civics curriculum?
That way, the district won't run the risk of kids learning about any of their
constitutional rights. No fuss, no mess.

Putting this suggestion on the table might cue the board to the irony
of teaching citizenship in the classroom while simultaneously ignoring the
constitutional rights of students.

Fortunately, most school districts know the folly of ignoring the
First Amendment. On the same day that I received the call from the concerned
board member, Mr. Thomas and I were conducting a workshop on the
religious-liberty guidelines for leaders from six Pennsylvania school districts
located just over the state line from the previously noted New Jersey district.

No crisis precipitated this training. The Pennsylvania educators just
wanted to find out what is legal and right before any conflict erupts.

As we told them, the consensus guidelines disseminated by the U.S.
Department of Education are a good place to start. But much more must be done.

It isn't enough simply to inform students about their rights. One of
public education's core missions is to teach students how to exercise their
rights with responsibility. This can be done in a variety of ways, from
involving students in the process of drafting class rules to “town meetings”
where students are encouraged to discuss issues that arise in the school

Nor is it sufficient to send moms and dads a list of guidelines.
Parents should be involved in the process of developing policies and practices
to implement the guidelines in the schools.

Why is this so important? Because public schools are laboratories for
citizenship in our democracy. If we expect students to be responsible and
committed citizens, then we must ensure that schools model the democratic first
principles at the heart of the American experiment in liberty.

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