I've decided to share my letters to the administration, PTA president and local school cluster leaders (the latter have been communicating with the Board of Education -- I would not have approached them personally unless I received no response from the administration).
The first one, I sent shortly after reading all the comments from my LiveJournal entry the other night asking whether people thought Pro-Life Cupcake Day was a free speech issue or a freedom of religion issue and how that impacted a middle schooler's rights:
Dear [school administrators],
My son came home this afternoon aggravated because a girl was handing out cupcakes in the lunchroom to students who were wearing yellow shirts or who declared that they were pro-life. I had not known previously that it was "Pro-Life Cupcake Day":
or for a more angry feminist spin on it:
I hesitated about whether to write, because I am loath to suggest that student political opinion should be censored or in any way restricted at [the school], but I think this issue is in a slightly different category than wearing a button supporting a candidate or announcing one's opposition to a health care bill. Aside from the potential inappropriateness of presenting information about abortion in a lunchroom when the county has restricted how and when it can be taught in health class, this is a religious issue as well as a political issue. When individual human life begins, and who should be allowed to choose whether a pregnancy should take place or continue, is a matter debated by theologians as well as medical practitioners. Handing out cupcakes in the name of unborn babies smacks to me of religious evangelism in the lunchroom, not political speech. And while I don't think that professing one's personal religion in school is problematic, trying to convert other students is a different story. Using cupcakes as a recruiting device for any belief system, spiritual or secular, seems like a bad idea to permit in a middle school, where kids are already dealing with so many forms of peer pressure and being excluded based on far more ephemeral things than one's religious or political beliefs.
I'm not writing to ask that you do anything specific; I just thought you should be aware of the situation, since it is likely to happen again next year on Pro-Life Cupcake Day, and I think it would be helpful if parents were made aware in advance that their children might be given information that could be considered inflammatory, inaccurate, or in opposition to what they've been taught either at home or in health class. I also think it would be helpful if the administration had a policy on whether food can be given out as a "reward" in the lunchroom to members of specific groups or affiliations.
Thank you, [me]
[PTA president replied, angry about situation and wondering if administration knew]
Dear [PTA president],
Thanks very much. I really wasn't sure whether to say anything -- [son] is fine with expressing his opinions to other students but I don't want to put him in the position of reporting to the administration (I actually think they probably didn't know, since on top of the political issue, there are allergy problems and other reasons kids aren't supposed to provide food to other kids, aren't there?).
On the one hand, I am loath to say anything that would make it sound like I don't support full freedom of expression in the schools. I know that there were kids wearing Obama and McCain buttons before the last election, who clearly had plenty of knowledge about the issues and weren't merely parroting their parents' opinions. But on the other hand, this is more like preaching to students than a debate, and handing out cupcakes in the lunchroom seems counterproductive to providing information on an issue that really, really needs to be discussed at home and in health class before it's discussed in a middle school lunchroom.
I don't want to get the girl in trouble -- I am guessing the idea came from a parent or religious leader and not that she discovered the Cupcakes for Life web site on her own initiative. And that someone helped her bring in the cupcakes.
Thanks again, [me]
[I got a forwarded reply from a county school board member sent to PTA president, local school cluster president, and some other admins, saying that on first glance it looked like a student speech issue -- some of which, like promoting drug use and inappropriate sexual language, is prohibited in middle schools -- and would have to be investigated as such]
Thanks very much for forwarding this. My first instinct when I heard about it was to think that, as much as it might trouble me personally, this was a free speech issue. But I think it's more complicated for two reasons.
I don't object to the anti-choice t-shirt [worn by the girl], although I remember that when I was in eighth grade at [the same school] in the early 1980s, the vice principal barred the wearing of Rush concert t-shirts that showed a marijuana leaf on them, so I know there is precedent for administrators announcing that certain subjects are simply not appropriate for middle schoolers to promote during school hours. The reason I think abortion might be one of those subjects is that health teachers are forbidden even to talk about it in the health classes these students have already had at school. (My son was scolded in fifth grade for saying that condoms were one way to prevent AIDS since the students were supposed to stick only to the classroom curriculum, not things they weren't going to learn about till they were older.) I doubt that this alone is a reason for banning a shirt, though it would not surprise me if other parents were taken aback to have their children's first serious education/discussion of abortion stem from a national pro-life campaign carried out in a middle school lunchroom.
The issue that concerns me more is that the girl wasn't only sharing a message, she was handing out a potential recruitment device, which I think brings up issues of peer pressure/bullying and also evangelism in the public schools. I realize that it's next to impossible to stop food sharing at lunch tables, but are students allowed to walk around the lunchroom giving out cupcakes only to other students who say that a specific teacher at the school is stupid? Would a Student Birther Movement be allowed to give out cupcakes only to students who agree with them that President Obama wasn't born in the US and therefore kids shouldn't have to respect his education policies? Are students allowed to give out cupcakes only to students who believe in Jesus? The line between peer pressure and harassment can be very fine, and these kids are young enough that they don't always understand how to respect beliefs that are different than the ones with which they've been raised.
I am very, very sensitive to the free speech issues -- I would NEVER want to set a precedent whereby the parents at [magnet high school] (where my older son is a student) who object to the gay student union there giving out wristbands in support of gay teens could cite a ban on pro-life cupcakes to support their cause. But I think there' s a difference between high school and middle school in terms of how much "free speech" about sex, sexuality, and reproductive freedom has been deemed appropriate -- I'm sure that profanity and certain sorts of sexual discussion are banned outright even in high school -- and I also think that when a national political campaign targeting adolescents is unleashed in my child's school, I have a right as a parent to know my options and my son's options to present alternatives, particularly when the subject is so inflammatory that it isn't covered in school classes.
Thanks again, [me]
And this morning, in reply to the principal, who said they were looking into the matter:
Thanks very much for getting back to me. Apparently I was not the only one who was upset, because a friend pointed out to me the links on the main page of the Cupcakes for Life web site, which we both found extremely troubling. Here are the people who on a national level are responsible for Pro-Life Cupcake Day:
Live Offensively, whose mission statement from the very top of their web site is the following:
"We believe that Christians are in the midst of a great spiritual war that rages every day. Our convictions are not to be defensive but rather offensive to the culture and the community around us...we want to expose the lies of our enemy and bring God's truth to our generation."
Bound For Life, whose self-definition on their web site is also troubling in the context of a campaign carried out in public schools:
"A grassroots prayer mobilization movement targeting the ending of abortion, the increase of adoptions and the reformation of government and society through spiritual awakening. Our mission is to mobilize a groundswell of prayer."
A web site with a great deal of proven disinformation about abortion (that black communities are targeted by pro-abortion propaganda, that it causes breast cancer), an offshoot of Loxafamosity Ministries. From their web site: "Abort73 exists under the banner of Loxafamosity Ministries, and is our response to God's call to establish justice, expose evil, minister to the needy and helpless, and extend love to every human person."
As I suspected, there is a religious movement behind Pro-Life Cupcake Day, and while I strongly support the right of every student at [middle school] to support and express his or her own political opinions, I also think students have the right to be protected from recruitment and harassment about their religious beliefs. As I told the PTA, I very much do NOT want to ban the wearing of political buttons, etc., but I think that a movement backed by a religious organization must be considered differently than a "Students for Sarah Palin" group.
Thanks again, [me]