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Monday, April 16, 2007

Don't cut parents out of classrooms

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

"So, Johnny, what happened in school today?"

"Sorry, Dad, I can't tell you. They made us sign confidentiality agreements that forbid us from telling anyone what was said in class."

A couple of weeks ago I wrote, to the dismay and disagreement of a few, about how tough it is becoming for parents to be involved in their children's lives, what with "it-takes-a-village-to-raise-your-kids" adherents getting in the way. Now comes the ultimate:

North suburban Deerfield High School freshmen last month were required to sign a "confidentiality agreement" promising not to disclose to anyone what was said in a mandatory class involving one of the touchiest of subjects: homosexuality.

To be fair, the class was viewed in two ways:

•The school said the class was about building acceptance, tolerance and safety for bullied or marginalized students, such as gays. A panel of gay and pro-gay students explained to the students what it is like to be homosexual in an unfriendly, hostile or even threatening atmosphere and explored ways for students to become more accepting.

•North Shore Student Advocacy, the opponents, said the presentation by members of the Straight and Gay Alliance student group was an attempt to cast homosexuality in a positive light without presenting opposing views. The opponents feared that 14-year-olds who disagreed would be unfairly burdened with the label of hater or religious fanatic.

Which description is more accurate is difficult to determine, because parents have not been allowed to sit in on the class—which is understandable because there's nothing like the presence of parents to stifle discussion—and a promised videotape has not been made available. All the parents have to go on is what their children tell them, which is ironic because the children aren't supposed to be talking about it to anyone.

My first reaction was disbelief and outrage—at the unprecedented arrogance and stupidity of telling children that they can't talk about what's going on in school, even, presumably, with their parents. The know-it-alls were spinning out of control.

But a reading of the promise that the students were asked to sign indicates that it was more likely the result of a well-intentioned effort to protect children from being ridiculed and punished by their peers for what they say.

"We don't repeat what someone says in class outside of the classroom except if we have permission from the person that said it," the statement read. "We will not continue a conversation outside of class without permission from all the people that were involved during the class."

Such a promise, of course, makes it impossible to discuss what happened in class with the people who matter most: parents. The agreement may have been done without the intention of cutting out parents, which doesn't say much about how carefully this project was thought out. At best, the pledge was well intentioned but naive and ill-considered. At worst, it was really intended to hide a controversial issue from parents. To borrow from the Las Vegas marketing slogan: "What happens in school, stays in school."

Concerned Women for America a conservative advocacy group, later said the school principal told it that the pledge was a mistake. But I think there's a bigger mistake than the pledge itself: The project is an unrealistic attempt to create a non-judgmental environment about a complicated and controversial political, social, ethical and moral issue. Take another look at the pledge statement: "Each person has a chance to say what he or she wants without having it debated or denied or attacked, or agreed with or supported. It gets to stand on its own, without being taken over by someone else, either by cross talk [debating, denying] or piggybacking [agreeing, supporting]."

Here is an attempt to scrub a discussion clean of debate, disagreement or—astonishingly—agreement. It assumes that "choosing sides" is a horrible way to come to a mutual understanding.

This is not the real world. Nor is it right when one side is given an official platform to make value statements, as it was in the Deerfield class. Never mind the gross unfairness of it and how it biases the discussion against people who disagree with the appointed few. Worse, it reflects a fanciful belief that we can and must avoid "hurt feelings," even at the cost of an idea that the recently deceased author Kurt Vonnegut so dearly valued: That from cantankerous disagreement we can extract the real and true.

At least that's what I think, and if that causes hurt feelings at Deerfield High School, too bad.


Anonymous said...

Dennis, if you saw the entire curriculum that was in use last year for this so-called "Diversity Unit" it would curl your hair. There is no doubt that a dialogue is needed, but the coordinator of the program chose propagandistic materials that slam heterosexuality, whiteness, maleness, and Christianity. I think they call it "Social Justice" but to me, it's a whole lotta idiocy. This year, the curriculum may have been replaced BUT, parents are not allowed to review it. The superintendent has argued that there is a link to the curriculum on the District Website but in fact, it is but a link to Illinois Learning Standards. This is the same superintendent who left Ann Arbor roiling and was known for his secretive, "byzantine" modus operandi. I suspect that the confidentiality agreement is the tip of the iceberg.

Alan Nudelman said...

Dear Mr. Byrne,

I must take issue with your column in today's Tribune (4/16/07, "Don't cut parents out of classrooms." I believe the crux of your arguement is contained in this paragraph:"Here is an attempt to scrub a discussion clean of debate, disagreement or - astonishingly - agreement. It assume that "choosing sides" is a horrible way to come to a mutual understanding." To me it seems the point of the "confidentiality agreement" was to, as you said, to allow students to speak out about how they felt. But you want to take the expression of these feelings and make them into a subject for discussion wth debate, disagreement, or agreement. Why would it be necessary or desirable to do so? The feelings expressed are neither right nor wrong. They are neither diminished nor enhanced through debate. They simply are what they are.

A debate clarifies, refines, and if participated in with an open mind, may change opinions. With the confidentiality agreement, the teachers in this class were making a statement that the feelings expressed were not subject to debate. They simply were. There is no one who can rightfully say these students were right or wrong to have these feelings. THAT was the point of the agreement, and I hope a major point of the class.

The only exception I could see would be if a feeling was expressed that was potentially harmful to the student expressing that feeling or to another student. In this case and at this level, I believe intervention, not debate, would have been needed.


Alan Nudelman

Anonymous said...

Dennis Byrne's column “Don’t cut parents out of classroom” (April 16, 2007) exaggerates and misleads the issues. “Now comes the ultimate: …” writes Mr. Byrne. How is it that asking students not to discuss other students’ personal views, preferences, and sexual orientation is the “ultimate” in censorship? Parents are not cut out of their role in the debate. There are no restrictions in home discussions of sexuality. Sexuality has frequently been a topic in our house and we have three kids in, and one graduated from, the Deerfield school system. And Mr. Byrne, don’t kid yourself - you are no Kurt Vonnegut. Is that cantankerous enough for you?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Byrne,

I deeply appreciate your column about Deerfield High School. The Diversity unit of the Freshman Advisory curriculum for the past few years had several activities that demanded student confidentiality. These demands, are wholly inappropriate no matter what their intent. Public school classrooms are neither therapeutic settings nor counseling sessions. There should be no discussions that my child cannot share with anyone, peer or parent, outside the class. I especially welcome your comments on "hurt feelings." The subjective emotional experiences of students have assumed a place of supremacy in public schools and are used to proscribe only conservative or traditional views of sexual orientation. Administrations assert that LGBTQ kids will be "hurt" if they hear that some disapprove of homosexual conduct or transsexuality, even if those who hold those views treat all with grace and civility. Schools manipulate rhetoric by using the term "safety" when they are often referring to emotional comfort or absence of disapproval. This is the same sort of manipulation of language for political efficacy that goes on with the use of "tolerance" when what schools really mean is "approval." There are myriad ways that schools find to permit the expression of non-traditional views while proscribing traditional ones.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Byrne - in reference to what anonymous (11:27 PM) said - Deerfield High school is "...proscribing traditional" views on sexuality? The definition of proscribing is: 1. to denounce or condemn (a thing) as dangerous or harmful; prohibit. DHS is not proscribing traditional views. So who is it that is giving "propagandistic materials" (Anonymous, 9:20AM)? Mr. Byrne - are you comfortable being a party to all of this?

Isabella Santiago said...

Mr. Byrne, Thank you for taking a risk in being a party to this debate regardless of whether or not you "feel" comfortable. There a very serious issues at stake in our public education system in Deerfield, a local system just as "broke" as any other public school, although in its own unique ways. I refer anonymous of 11:01 AM post to the District website to learn the name of the individual who selected last year's curriculum, which included a discussion of "heterosexism." The Social Justice Packet in use last year condemned whites, males, christians, and heterosexuals as the evil "power overs" the victimized Jews (funny in a community that is over 50% Jewish with a school board comprised of 7 Jews), gays, blacks and women.