School’s anti-war assignment canceled

A letter-writing campaign by third-graders at Allis Elementary School encouraging an end to the war in Iraq was canceled because it violates School Board policy, district officials said Tuesday.
Julie Fitzpatrick, a member of the 10-teacher team that developed the project for the school’s 90 third-grade students in five classes, said the assignment was intended to demonstrate citizen action, one of the district’s standards in social studies.
By Sandy Cullen, Wisconsin State Journal, 11/23/05

“We saw peace as a common good,” Fitzpatrick said. “We were just advocating that people keep working toward peace.”
But Robin Reynolds, an Army veteran whose 8-year-old grandson is in Fitzpatrick’s class, said she regards the assignment as a form of “anti-war protesting” that “is not suitable for elementary students.”
“They’re supposed to teach the facts and not opinions,” she said. “That’s brainwashing.”
“It was certainly an unfortunate thing to have happen,” Superintendent Art Rainwater said. “It’s a direct violation of our board policy.
Madison School Board policy prohibits teachers “from exploiting the institutional privileges of their professional positions to promote candidates or parties and activities.”
“We don’t want our staff ever using our students in a political activity, which this obviously was,” Rainwater said. “I think the district would apologize to anyone who was offended. It should not have happened.”
Allis Principal Chris Hodge said a letter was sent to parents Tuesday apologizing to anyone who was offended and informing them that the project was rescinded.
Reynolds, who served as a personnel assistant at Fort McClellan in Alabama during the Vietnam War and has three family members serving in Iraq, said she “blew up” last Friday when her grandson brought home a letter informing parents about the campaign, in which students were to write a letter every day for 12 days.
Letters were to go to other students, the state’s U.S. senators and representatives, President Bush, and the secretary of the United Nations urging them to “join our press for peace.” If the war were not over in 12 days, the sequence would be repeated.
Reynolds said her grandson was upset by the assignment. “He knows he’s got an uncle and cousins over there.”
Fitzpatrick and Hodge, said a misunderstanding resulted in the initial letter going out to parents.
“I left with the impression we could go with it,” Fitzpatrick said.
But Hodge said she had wanted to find out what the School Board’s policy was before the letter was sent home.
“I thought it was an inappropriate assignment,” Hodge said, adding she felt the topic of war was “too vast” for third-graders to understand. “I just think it was too much to ask of a third- grader.”
Hodge said she had only heard from one parent who also was concerned that the project was beyond a third- grader’s level of understanding.
School Board President Carol Carstensen said board policy and the district’s teachers contract also require teachers to withhold the expression of personal opinion unless asked a direct question when dealing with controversial issues.
While it would be appropriate for students to decide to write letters expressing their own views, Cartsensen said, “It isn’t appropriate to mandate it.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Green, R- Green Bay, who is seeking Republican nomination for governor in 2006, on Tuesday faxed Hodge a letter calling for the assignment to be rescinded.
Hodge said she had received Green’s fax but had not had time to read it.
“We’re really stunned by the reception,” Fitzpatrick said. “In hindsight, I guess we should have anticipated it. It’s kind of sad when peace causes a furor.”
Fitzpatrick said many parents had sent envelopes and stamps as requested in the initial letter they received.
Sharon Johnson, co- president of the Allis’s Parent Teacher Organization, and Toni Kress-Russick, both of whom have children in Fitzpatrick’s class, said they were supportive of the project.
Kress-Russick, a special education teacher at Memorial High School, said it taught social responsibility and demonstrated to students that “people can make a difference” and that “just one little third-grader can matter.”
“I thought it was a great assignment,” Johnson said. “People just tend to blow things out of proportion all the time. I think this is one of them.”
Susan Abplanalp, assistant superintendent for elementary and secondary schools, said she does not believe the teachers involved viewed the assignment as a political activity.
“They really looked at this as a peace project,” Abplanalp said. “I don’t think that the intent was to make this a political statement.”
The assignment The letter sent home to parents last Friday said third-graders at Allis Elementary School would be “writing letters to encourage an end to the war in Iraq. The letter writing will teach civic responsibility, a social studies standard, while providing an authentic opportunity to improve composition skills and handwriting.”
Students were to write a letter a day for 12 days to other students, the state’s U.S. senators and representatives, the president of the United States, and the secretary of the United Nations “urging them to press for peace,” as well as to the media.
If the war did not end in 12 days, the sequence would be repeated.
Parents were asked to provide 10 postage stamps and 12 envelopes.
An alternative assignment was to be provided for students whose parents did not want them to participate.