As reported in the New York Times today and the Salt Lake Tribune yesterday, our local school district (Nebo School District) in Utah reversed its decision not to allow the students to watch President Obama's speech to the nation's children.
A group of us parents from our Springville neighborhood attended the local school district's board meeting, pleased to hear their formal apology and plan to show the video next week. I joined other members of the public in expressing to the board our strong feelings about their poor decision initially.
What was the main issue here? I believe Rebecca deSchweinitz, someone who spoke very passionately to the board Wednesday, hit the nail on the head: the issue is political bullying.
Political bullying is when people use intimidation or a climate of threats and fear to harass those who are not of their political bent. Two kinds of political bullying are happening in conservative Utah, each disturbing in its own way.
The first sort of political bullying being tolerated in Utah is that done by children to other children. This happens all the time around here. When my eighth-grade son returned to school after we had pulled him and his brother out for an hour to listen to President Obama's address, kids asked him where he had been. This provided another fresh occasion for them to mock Obama and make my son feel bad for committing the political heresy of appearing to be in favor of our president. Ms. deSchweinitz reported to the school board on far graver incidents: a first grader in the district was beat up because that child had some sort of connection to Obama, etc. Other parents I spoke with at the board meeting had similar stories. An Obama for President sign in front of the home made the children living there a target for constant ridicule.
The second sort of political bullying being tolerated in Utah (at least in Utah County) is parents bullying the schools. As board member Debbie Swenson admitted to the Times, the decision not to show the video came about in the wake of angry parents phoning the school. Now, to be fair, every school board has to make many decisions in the wake of angry parents phoning up. At Wednesday's meeting, an irate father brought his daughter's tennis uniform in order to protest the high costs of uniforms. That's life on the school board.
But when the Nebo School District chose to allow a few angry parents (or even many angry parents) to prevent the highest elected official in the land from addressing the assembled children of the public school system, they caved into political bullying. How was this bullying and not simply concerned parents expressing their right to be part of local school decisions? Because those parents' complaints were politically charged, filled with as much ideology as they were claiming Mr. Obama's speech was going to contain. The district allowed itself to be intimidated by the prejudices of local parents, plain and simple. Even when the full text of the speech was available (and Ms. deSchweinitz phoned all the board members the morning after it was, when it was still time for a decision to allow viewing the video) the board felt it would be safer not to enrage the partisan parents. They were very poor leaders to be intimidated in this way. They lacked integrity, or they agreed with the empty claims about potential ideological indoctrination. The students lost, and the parent-bullies won.
I don't think it is overstating things to say that those parents were bullies. They were using intimidation tactics, they did not appeal to reason, and they did not respect the school environment as a safe place where civics can and should be respected and where dispassionate debate about issues is modeled as a primary American value. This sort of political bullying is unAmerican, unfitting for the parents and unfitting for the school system that is set up to teach, preserve, and pass on the American value of allowing for political discussion and political difference. This political bullying not only denies free speech; worse, it creates social conditions that prohibit any kind of pluralism. It is the offspring of the sort of no-tolerance rhetoric propagated by talk show fear mongerers. You can fill in the names there. Those are the civics instructors for too many of the conservatives in this state and elsewhere. Who needs a school system to require one to listen to more than one side of an issue when you can wield the weapon of angered intimidation and manage to censor your political opponent altogether? Victory for the bullies, defeat for the American values (that conservatives so often pretend to uphold).
Bullying has become a prominent topic lately. Cyber-bullying, schoolroom bullying of the more traditional sort. President Obama addressed it in his speech, in fact, and there are school programs to teach kids not to be a bully or to allow bullying. My wife works in one of the elementary schools in the Nebo district. I've seen posters in that school making students aware that bullying is not right and not to be endured.
But that does not apply to political bullying. I agree with Ms. deSchweinitz: the Nebo district helped to contribute to a culture of bullying. They will show Pres. Obama's speech, but will they do anything to address the rampant mockery, cynicism, and dismissiveness that the more part of the students feel justified in maintaining? When I tried to be positive with my son about the district's reversed decision, he expressed his fear of how he would be treated on the day that the video will be shown. I think he would just rather have the whole thing go away now. He doesn't want to have to face the ridicule again. Will the Nebo district address the likelihood of general mockery of Obama and anyone who appears sympathetic to him? I wonder.
Parents should keep their children from becoming political bullies, not fuel that fire. But in Utah, among conservatives, there is a gleeful, open-season feeling among Obama haters. It shows up in the glib statements parents throw around on facebook and that their children readily pass along. Within hours of the district's decision not to show the Obama video, a 12-year old that lives in the neighborhood passed along this campaign button on facebook.
A second, older student, felt emboldened by the day's events to advertise joining a facebook group called "Socialism Resistance Movement" that showed this reverse black-face image of our president ("Learn the lies of tyrannical President Obama.") Don't think for a minute that racism doesn't also fuel the anti-Obama sentiments in our area.
So that's the climate in conservative Utah, or at least at the heart of American-values Utah Valley with its proud tradition of the Freedom Festival and its family values. Will the Nebo School District have the courage to stand up to the bullying of parents who have forgotten not only their manners but the manner by which we are able to conserve and foster political pluralism? There is such convenience in having demons. Such sport. But little education of the sort I want to have tax dollars pay for.
I want a school system that is able to educate students into the true meaning of totalitarianism so that the students recognize not only the ridiculousness but the harm of the "Socialism Resistance Movement" and its call to "Fight totalitarianism while there is still time." I want a school system that educates my children enough that they would stand up for someone else's right to believe differently -- politically, religiously, or whatever. I want a school system that dares to tell children that racism is a costly form of bullying that each generation must guard against. I just want to send my eighth-grader to school without him being afraid of mockery or physical abuse if he mentions he has listened to the President of the United States talk about trying to do your best in school.