What started as muted frustration among some parents of York High School government students over the choice of a speaker for Constitution Week is now a multi-pronged debate—in some cases heated—between educators, parents, atheists and the Illinois Family Institute.
Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst selected this year's speaker for Constitution Week, as they have for the past two years.
"The CAC does the legwork as far as finding and selecting speakers and we make ourselves available that week for the person to come to our school," said Charles Ovando, Research and Social Sciences Division chairman at York.
The speaker this year, 17-year-old Jessica Ahlquist, is an atheist from Rhode Island who filed a federal lawsuit to force her high school to remove a religious banner that had hung in the school's gymnasium for 49 years.
Atheism is a polarizing subject, as Ahlquist found. She won her battle to have the prayer removed, but bullying and threats in her school and community forced her to withdraw from school.
And here in Elmhurst, a predominantly Christian/Catholic community, the polarization continues. The CAC refers to Ahlquist as a "defender of free speech" who stood up against tremendous adversity in the name of democracy. But some parents see the visit as a means to thrust liberal talking points on teenagers.
'We Could Have Done Better'
Parents say the permission slips brought home last Thursday provided no information about the nature of the assembly, only date, instructor's name, and that it is a presentation sponsored by the CAC.
"I didn't even know what the CAC was," parent Nancy Cramblit said. "It included no information about the speaker. With no information, it's not open and transparent."
The permission slip is not really asking parents' permission to allow their kids to hear the speaker, Ovando said in a phone interview Monday. It's required by law when a student has to leave his regular classroom to attend another school-sponsored event.
"There is some confusion surrounding the permission slip," Ovando said. "We're asking them to leave their (regular) class to attend this government lecture. It's not designed to illustrate the curricular purposes of a field trip."
Ovando did say there were things they "could have done better."
"In hindsight, we could have communicated better what it was about, we could have put things on our website sooner, encouraged students to talk to their parents," he said. "I certainly think we could have put a description on the back of our permission slip, not because we're concerned about backlash, but because it's always good when the school is open with the community about what's going on in our classrooms."
As of Monday evening, he had updated the department website regarding Constitution Week to provide a "more comprehensive rationale" for Tuesday's presentation. The Constitution Week page can be found here.
Cramblit has been keeping a couple dozen families in the loop regarding her email correspondence with District 205 staff members, and a number of those parents have corresponded with school staff on their own.
"Everyone on my email list thinks it's disgusting, ridiculous and definitely a leftist move," Cramblit said of bringing Ahlquist to the district.
One parent addressed Superintendent David Pruneau on Monday, saying, in part, that teachers are more interested in "brainwashing a captive audience with the latest liberal talking points" than teaching core values and citizenship.
"You like to say that character counts in this town. Really? I hadn't noticed," the parent said.
Pruneau's response, in part, was that the goal in bringing the speaker for Constitution Week "is not to promote her or her particular point of view, but rather to serve as a catalyst to engage our students in discussions about constitutional interpretation that result in a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Constitution and our democracy."
Also creating controversy is Ahlquist's intended message. Will she be speaking on the Constitution? Bullying? Standing up for a cause she believed in?
To Ovando, one of the messages Ahlquist is bringing is courage.
"She's not portraying herself as a legal expert. We're not having Jessica speak to our students because she is going to be an expert in explaining the Establishment Clause," he said. "What is compelling about her is that she was courageous enough to speak out about something that was important to her."
The lesson he wants his students to take from the assembly is that no student should feel ostracized for their beliefs.
"Here's a kid who was in a minority in terms of her religious belief system and she stood up for herself. I want all our kids to feel that is something they can feel safe doing in our school. Whatever ethnic background, religious background, sexual orientation, we want all our kids to feel safe."
Illinois Family Institute
When the Illinois Family Institute entered the fray, Laurie Higgins, an IFI cultural analyst, asked Maryam Judar of the CAC the same question: What is the message?
"I was told that since Ahlquist is only 17 years old, 'she won't be able to speak articulately on the First Amendment issues' but rather that she would be talking about advocating for an issue about which she cares deeply and about being bullied,' " Higgins wrote. (Judar claims she was misquoted.)
"… Of course bullying is an important issue but unrelated to the constitutional issues about which Ahlquist was ostensibly invited to talk."
This is a problem, Higgins wrote, because "The goal of transgressive activists and teachers who see themselves as 'agents of change' is to make students feel as if their philosophical disagreement with ideas is tantamount to bullying people. So, if Jessica Ahlquist were to tell students about being bullied, students would be less inclined to increase her suffering by expressing their disagreement with her atheism or her political cause."
Her article ends with a call to action and a place for those who object to the presentation to post comments that will be forwarded to school officials at York and the other two schools hosting Ahlquist. As of Monday afternoon, the site had nearly 100 responses.
By Monday night, Higgins said an "unusual number of atheists from around the country" also had gotten on the IFI site to support those schools that invited Ahlquist to speak. Hemant Mehta, the self-described "Friendly Atheist," slammed Higgins' article in a blog post of his own.
Question of Balance
Was Ovando ever concerned about the choice of Ahlquist as the speaker?
"Not really," he said.
Ovando said the goal is always to find speakers students can identify with and bring cases to life that otherwise would be abstract.
"A speaker like Jessica raises no more concerns in my mind than if we brought in a speaker who was a student activist against abortion. It's not the issue itself that is as important as, 'Is this a legitimate case? Is this a presentation that can stimulate a lot of good discussion in the classroom and raise passionate debate about national issues? Does it connect to our curriculum?'"
When asked if the school had ever brought in a conservative speaker—an anti-abortion activist—Ovando said it has not.
"But it is something that I think we should always be conscious about," he said. "It's the third year we've done this with the CAC in terms of Constitution Week. Looking forward, I would certainly welcome speakers on particular issues that land any place on the spectrum."
He disagrees that there is a "left-wing agenda."
"I understand that is what some parents are saying," he said. "To me, that doesn't resonate. An agenda would suggest we are bringing her in because we are trying to promote her particular belief system. We're bringing her in because she was a participant in a federal court case that helps illustrate something we study in class.
Cramblit's son, a senior, will not be attending the assembly Tuesday. He decided that on his own. She also said she knows of several parents who decided for their kids that they will not attend.
"It's always a punishment for those of us who opt our kids out," she said. "Then our kids are isolated and they have that diminished experience. This is what divides families. They don't want to be isolated. They don't want the diminished experience, so they won't tell you what's going on at school."
Cramblit says her goal was never to get the school to cancel the speaker, but rather to gain more transparency for parents and a sense of balance in the information reaching students.
On Solid Ground
Is Ovando surprised at the parent backlash?
"No, I'm not," he said. "Being a community that's primarily Catholic or Christian, it doesn't surprise me that someone who is atheist would get a second look in terms of what this presentation is about.
"(But) I think we're on very solid ground as a school because of how we use presentations like this in our curriculum."
Ovando said he has "a foot in both worlds."
"I've been reflecting on this quite a bit," he said. "I have three kids (in elementary school). I know that with their friends, in the hallways and in classrooms they're going to encounter things that as their dad I might have some concerns about.
"First of all I have a lot of trust in the schools and the teachers. But secondly, I know that in my home, we talk about things. The moral compass my kids are going to get—I don't expect the schools to be doing that. I expect that to be something that we work on together in our home."
Cramblit still sees the presentation as "just a leftist move."
"I don't blame Mr. Ovando for not recognize it as such, but that's why it's important they give parents the truth, because we can help with that," she said. "It's simply a matter of doing what we have the right to do with our kids."