Tuesday :: Sep 27, 2005

Q&A with Stevens Creek Elementary School (CA) parents - Part I

by eriposte

In a previous post, I mentioned that the Far Right Alliance Defense Fund - ADF (who incidentally do not meet four of the BBB Standards for Charity Accountability) and their client Stephen Williams (a teacher at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, CA) had dropped their lawsuit against the school principal and board after it became obvious that their lawsuit was a cruel joke. Unlike the initial, propagandistic mainstream media (MSM) coverage of ADF's fake claims, their coverage of the lawsuit being dropped due to lack of any validity to the charges in the lawsuit predictably garnered little, if any, coverage (this is, after all, how myths routinely and firmly get embedded in the public mind - click here for another recent example). This, in turn, meant that the parents who fought for the school and against ADF and the misinformation in the media - We The Parents (WTP) - got at best a meagre opportunity to tell the public about their views about this whole episode. So I wanted to give the parents an opportunity to share their thoughts freely, ask them how they organized and fought back against ADF and the untruths in the media, and find out their views on issues relating to religion, public schools, media and blogs. Consequently, I sent out a list of questions to WTP and asked if any of their members would be willing to send me email responses to those questions. The question list was long and it called for a significant time commitment to respond - so I was gratified when three of the parents very kindly agreed to respond with their thoughts. I am featuring the responses of those 3 parents here also because I think it is important for the progressive blogosphere to understand how everyday Americans (who didn't [or don't] read blogs that much) perceive some of the important issues that we have been trying to address in blogs over the past few years.

Before I reproduce the Q&A, a few important comments.

(a) Please note that all the views offered by these parents are their own personal views and DO NOT represent the views of the We The Parents organization.
(b) The responses by the parents were sent independently of each other (i.e., I present their responses clubbed together for convenience, but they were not submitted at the same time).
(c) The responses are reproduced as-is except for minor edits for punctuation/typos/URLs. Alongside some of the responses, I have added my own commentary (enclosed in [...]).
(d) I have rearranged the order of some questions because I had to break up the Q&A into multiple parts (owing to length considerations) and I wanted to keep related questions close to each other. This does not affect the parents responses in any way since the responses are independent of the ordering of the questions.

Q&A - Part I

Q1 [Eriposte at The Left Coaster (TLC)]: Why and how was WTP created? Who conceived the idea and brought together this group?

Dick Crouch: WTP was created in December 2004 to try to coordinate some kind of response to the publicity surrounding the lawsuit brought by the ADF on behalf of Stephen Williams. The first 1-2 weeks saw everyone at the school in disarray in the face of a hostile and well-organized publicity blitz. The school and school district were prevented from responding effectively because of concerns about undermining their legal case.
The school PTA were similarly bound to school and district policy, and were constrained in what they could do. For example, it was felt to be beyond their remit to contact all the parents in the school, alert them to what was happening, and coordinate some kind of response.
Instead a couple of open letters in support of the school and principal started circulating amongst parents via email. This grass-roots reaction developed in two ways. First, a Yahoo group was set up to allow more effective email communication. Second, a meeting was held at one of the parent's house, attended by about 20 people, and where WTP was actually formed. The group eventually put together a web site (which did not go live until early January), which turned out to be a very effective way of getting a message out.
It took about 2 weeks for WTP to come about. By which time the initial media furore had largely subsided, with only one side of the story being presented. A speedier response on our part would probably have made a big difference -- but we're a school community, not an organized special interest group, and so it inevitably took a while to get going.

John Bartas: When I first heard of the threats against the school, I was so incensed that I immediately started a web site to counter some of the misinformation being thrown around. That night I attended a meeting at the school, and ran into other parents who were thinking along the same lines. One had started a Yahoo group, another was doing some press writing. We started meeting and working together. We were a diverse lot, but unanimous in our revulsion at what was happening, so the group just grew. It seemed almost like a natural extension of our volunteer work at the school.

Nathalie Schuler: It really was a serendipity kind of a thing! Many of us were incensed but the PTO had decided that they really could not organize anything because it's not within their purview to do something like that.
There was a rally at school to unveil the new school song. I decided to make a statement and made a cardboard sign that my grandfather nailed to a wooden stake. The sign read 'Keep religion out of public schools". I took it with me fully knowing that it could make me a target of unpleasant remarks. Everyone loved it! I came back and staked it on my front yard. I expected my husband would disagree but he came home and said he liked it! I expected it would bring vandalism in the form of Christmas lights torn or my reindeer broken (it was Xmas by this time, early December) and it didn't. So I guess the risk was there but never materialized!
Because the secretary at school knew about the sign and knew how I felt, she sent a Mercury News reporter to interview me when she asked if any parents would talk. When my name showed up in the report, I started to get calls. One was from John Bartas, whose wife told him to call me. Another was from JMM [name truncated to initials - Eriposte], who would in time become our blogger extraordinaire! And another one was from a parent who had been a supporter of ADF who was absolutely upset about this and wanted to do something. Everyone seemed united in thinking that we had to organize something so I proposed a meeting at my home. Over 25 people came on December 17th and that night We, The Parents was born. Our mission statement of clearing the name of the school and dispelling the misconceptions about the Declaration of Independence came after much hashing out our differences about what we wanted to do.That was the universal goal we all had and the one we could all agree on. We were all very passionate about this and some wanted to go further than others. Some members left at some stages of the game because they thought we were taking too many risks. Those who stayed, kept on taking risks and I believe it did pay off. And even some who left really stayed on behind the scenes as advisers and sounding boards which we all found invaluable.

[Eriposte comments: I found the parents' narrative to be fascinating because they were basically organizing for the first time, with people of different ideologies and political orientations trying to find common ground to join forces against a gross injustice that was being played out in the media. I think groups across the country may find a lot to learn from WTP in how they can jointly address shared problems in their community. See Q2 for more.]

TLC, Q2: Did any non-profit or non-partisan organization or advocacy group make an offer of help (to you) during this episode? If not, would you have liked some help from such groups?

Crouch: It was impossible to find an organization or advocacy group that everybody in WTP regarded as non-partisan. The only thing that united us was the knowledge that lies had been told about our school for political and ideological ends. Some of us were in sympathy with these ends, others not, but no one approved of the means. It was hard enough holding the group together as it was. Help from just about any outside organization would have split us down the middle. And this was a real problem, because we badly needed help. The trouble is, we were a group of people with no particular religious or political common cause up against a highly organized and focused attacker.

Bartas: Once we got organized, we found several organizations willing to help, including the ACLU and PFAW (People For the American Way). Some of the more conservative parents objected to these organizations "leftist" reputations (more a product of the MSM than reality), so we passed. I myself had believed for years that the ACLU was somewhat leftist and was unfamiliar with PFAW. Even thought the ACLU sometimes supports causes I strongly oppose, I reviewed their work and concluded that both groups are actually quite centrist, wanting only to defend basic human rights and preserve representative democracy. They work by factual discourse, rather than disseminating lies like the ADF. IMO Civil rights, truth and free speech are not "left wing" causes.

Schuler: I believe some did. One of our supporters outside the school contacted the ACLU and we were contacted by them, but we declined to have them directly involved in this case because we felt it would polarize the parent population. We also had contact with People for the American Way and with Americans United but in very oblique ways. Some private attorneys were also contacted.

[Eriposte comments: This is an interesting perspective that I had not originally thought of because I had thought that it might be a good idea for some of the non-partisan, non-profit organizations to step in and help/represent the parents. In hindsight, I realize that such involvement would have been a mistake. It is more important that the individuals affected find appropriate common ground to battle a common threat or problem.

There's also another observation here that is worth highlighting - which Mr. Bartas mentions. Let me reproduce the relevant portion of his response here:

Some of the more conservative parents objected to these organizations "leftist" reputations (more a product of the MSM than reality), so we passed. I myself had believed for years that the ACLU was somewhat leftist and was unfamiliar with PFAW. Even thought the ACLU sometimes supports causes I strongly oppose, I reviewed their work and concluded that both groups are actually quite centrist, wanting only to defend basic human rights and preserve representative democracy.
Very perceptive of him! For example, the ACLU is a frequent target of the Right, but some libertarians/conservatives have acknowledged that the ACLU not only has a history of defending religious freedom but is also known to have reasonable or plausible legal positions. For example, as conservative law professor/blogger Eugene Volokh has noted (via Ed Brayton):
...But I know of no systematic pattern of the ACLU's filing such frivolous complaints.

In fact, my sense is that most of the criticism that the ACLU faces comes because their arguments are too successful -- not only nonfrivolous, but actually ones that win in court. If the ACLU only filed complaints that were such clear losers to be frivolous, they wouldn't much bother people: At most, they'd waste some government lawyers' time, but since government entities tend to have lawyers on salary (and generally not very high salary), they wouldn't even waste much government money. In those frivolous cases, the government would fight the ACLU, win (by definition, since if the government lost, the case wouldn't be frivolous), and even get sanctions against the ACLU.

But in fact the ACLU often wins, and even when it doesn't, its arguments are generally quite plausible...

Moreover, a lot of the criticisms of the ACLU conveniently ignore the fact that unlike groups like the ADF who have a narrowly defined (often partisan) ideology driving their organization, the ACLU is actually driven by a very broad (non-partisan) ideology - to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is thanks to uncritical mainstream media (and right-wing media) propaganda that false caricatures of the ACLU, rarely, if ever, get corrected.]

TLC, Q3: How much influence do you think WTP had on the Board of Cupertino Union School District (CUSD) and on how they responded to the lawsuit by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF)? Do you believe the advocacy of WTP helped other parents, teachers and students at Stevens Creek Elementary?

Crouch: I don't think we had much effect on the legal prosecution of the lawsuit, but this was never likely or intended. CUSD pursued a policy of saying almost nothing about the publicity generated by the lawsuit, for fear of prejudicing their case. WTP made it easier for the school district to carry on with this approach, by doing this part of the job for them. At the time, I felt the school district were badly mistaken in only fighting the lawsuit and ignoring the publicity campaign, given that the ADF were mostly focusing on publicity. However, the average school district is never going to be well equipped to deal with this kind of thing. In retrospect, maybe an ad hoc collection of concerned parents like WTP did just as well as CUSD could have done in countering the misleading publicity being circulated.
I think that WTP helped other parents and teachers: many teachers expressed gratitude that parents were vocally standing up for the school. It could easily have gone the other way, but in the end the ADF's attack on our school ended up strengthening the community. While WTP was far from being always perfect in bringing people together, I suspect that the mere presence of such a group did a lot to help in this.
I also believe that WTP were effective in communicating to CUSD widespread concerns about certain possible actions during the school year: in particular, that although the principal was due for rotation to another school this coming year, it would have been devastating to move her while leaving Stephen Williams in place.

Bartas: I'm not sure we had much affect on the board. They were focused on answering the lawsuit in court, not on countering the campaign of lies launched on Fox News and some blog sites. In fact, until the threats turned it into a safety issue, this was probably the right thing for them to do. We pay them to educate our kids, not run a PR machine.
Remember, the board members were all named in the lawsuit, so anything they said about it might have sounded self serving. As unbiased non litigants, we could be more direct. I hope our effort freed the board up a bit to focus on the legalities and public safely issues.
Many of the teachers, however, were very grateful. They felt attacked by the ADF, and in fact some of them were called at their homes and directly threatened. Several of them personally thanked me for our efforts to get the word out that they were not America-hating atheists. They also appreciated the community support - that the parents of their students did not just abandon them when the hate mail started. Instead we wrote articles and gave interviews about the fine jobs they were doing, and what a great school we had. Teachers are people too, they liked knowing that they had the support of the community and that those of us who were regulars at the school didn't believe the lies from the ADF and Fox News for an instant.

Schuler: I think it was an important but unstated goal for us to be able to show support for the board, the superintendent, the principal and the wonderful teachers and staff. I believe that through our actions they felt very supported and encouraged in their convictions. We had no direct contact with the board, but I did, out of courtesy, send the district a copy of every press release we issued.
I believe it helped the teachers because they let us know how much they appreciated what we were doing and they cooperated with us as well in coming to interviews and community forums we held so that their side could be heard too. They also applied some pressure on the board and superintendent to have Mr. Williams transferred. No one was comfortable with the situation of having him there.
We also helped the parents by acting as a liaison. We created yahoo groups and through them we kept parents informed of what was going on. We knew, by the many letters of support and thanks, that the majority thought we were doing the right thing. But not everyone was as active.

[Eriposte comments: I have said before that the policy of the school district/board - mostly silence - in response to ADF's fake publicity stunt and the media's willingness to be a propaganda arm for the Far Right was unacceptable. I always understood the reason why the board/district was keeping a low profile, but I did not find the reason strong enough to justify their passivity. As I wrote at some length, this is the kind of passivity that encourages groups like ADF to keep attacking public schools and teachers. Thus, while the school district may have been passive to supposedly avoid compromising their response to the lawsuit, this was an overly conservative (with a small "c") response that did not address the other responsibility that they had - to aggressively protect the schools, teachers, and students from malicious publicity and false attacks. This was not a case where there were some grey areas; it was an open and shut case of Stephen Williams and ADF going beyond reasonable means to achieve their narrow ideological ends using a lawsuit that was glaringly without merit. The school district should not have used their standard response at a time like this. Moreover, the district displayed a distinct ignorance about the modus operandi of Far Right groups: lawsuits which are more often than not just the icing on the cake, with the cake being their publicity campaign, usually fake and usually enabled and condoned by a Conservatively-tilted mainstream media that cares little about the need for accuracy in reporting and a lot more for the need to report "opinions" in a "he-said she-said" format.

In any case, regardless of the district's response, the emergence of WTP and the invaluable role they played was clearly very important because they were the sole group that was correcting the false propaganda in the media (outside of the blogosphere). They deserve kudos for this. Moreover, as Mr. Crouch has hinted, I think WTP may have inadvertently discovered the most effective means for public schools to protect themselves from false attacks - by relying on everyday American parents whose children go to those schools. In fact, for anyone trying to bring out the truth in public about a problem organization/group, the best way to do it is to encourage the families who are impacted by the organization's/group's actions to band together and get them a voice in the media coverage. When people are impacted first-hand by such groups, in negative ways, they are much more likely to fight back and to remember in the future what the group (and their agenda) is all about.]

To be continued...
eriposte :: 6:20 AM :: Comments (5) :: TrackBack (0) :: Digg It!