It's been more than a month since Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist spoke to Downers Grove North students during Constitution Week, but her visit is still making waves in Community High School District 99.
Ahlquist, 17, is an atheist who made headlines across the country earlier this year after filing 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 from her classmates and community forced her to withdraw from school.
Here in Downers Grove, Ahlquist became the subject of debate after she was invited by the North High history department to speak to students during Constitution Week. She was sponsored by the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, which refers to her as a "defender of free speech" who stood up against tremendous adversity in the name of democracy.
During her presentation, Ahlquist discussed with students the importance of exercising their constitutional rights, and how her own experience led to severe harassment.
Her visit to Downers Grove—as well as York High School in Elmhurst and Waubonsie Valley in Aurora—drew the ire of the Illinois Family Institute, a conservative non-profit dedicated to "upholding and re-affirming marriage, family, life and liberty" through Judeo-Christian teachings and traditions.
In a blog post dated Sept. 16, 2012, IFI cultural analyst Laurie Higgins slammed the schools for hosting Ahlquist. She also claimed she was told by a member of the CAC that Ahlquist wouldn't be able to "speak articulately on the First Amendment issues,” but rather would discuss being bullied and advocating for an issue she cares deeply about.
"During Constitution Week, there is no need to import a teenager who, according to the sponsors of the event itself, is unable to adequately discuss constitutional issues, particularly when Illinois has an abundance of scholars who can expertly discuss 'modern-day' constitutional issues," Higgins wrote.
Soon after Ahlquist's appearance at North High, district administrators and board members were flooded with hundreds of emails, most of which were from people far outside Downers Grove, according to District 99 Communications Director Jill Browning. However, they were also contacted by several parents of students in the district, who questioned why they weren't notified of the visit.
"At the very least, a permission slip should have been home informing parents about the views of the guest speaker," Downers Grove resident Jim Wool said during the District 99 school board's Sept. 17 meeting. "The permission slip should have informed parents that only one point of view would be presented. (It) should have also informed parents that the speaker was not an expert on constitutional law, and would not be able to articulate on the First Amendment."
Both York and Waubonsie sent permission slips home prior to Ahlquist's presentation, according to Elmhurst Patch. York's form, however, did not mention the nature of the presentation.
In response, District 99 board members took up the issue of controversial topics and parent notification procedures during its Oct. 1 workshop and Oct. 16 business meeting.
On Oct. 1, District 99 Board Member Michael Davenport asked for a discussion of Policy 6.80, which states that the superintendent shall ensure that all "school-sponsored presentations and discussions of controversial or sensitive topics in the instructional program, including those made by the guest speakers," are consistent with curriculum, informative and present a balanced view. They must also be respectful to the rights and opinions of everyone, and be age appropriate.
Davenport said he was primarily concerned about the procedures for notifying parents of controversial topics in the classroom, not whether or not those topics are covered.
"I was a little concerned—as I know several other board members were as well, and staff certainly—that we had something happen that had some national stature to it," Davenport said. "(We) certainly should have had some expectation that we could have some people in the community that might question (the speaker). We might want to be better prepared for those things."
District 99 Superintendent Mark McDonald said both high schools have often provided parent notification on issues teachers believe parents might have a problem with. The problem, he said, is that not everyone would agree whether Ahlquist's visit—or other topics covered in schools—should be deemed controversial enough to warrant notification.
"At some level or another, it's still a judgment call by somebody whether notification is needed or not," McDonald said. "What we've tried to put in place is just a more rigorous system (for examining those topics)."
During the board's business meeting Monday night, Downers Grove South Principal Steve Bild said he and North Principal Scott Kasik have both instituted a "more intricate" structure for examining guest speakers and deciding whether parent notification is necessary.
At South, department chairs must contact every administrator in the front office about any outside speaker they wish to have during school hours. The administrators will discuss the proposed speakers, and whether they would be considered controversial.
Bild said the administration is comfortable with the system, and doesn't anticipate any future issues. Based on the current procedures, Ahlquist's visit may not have even required notification, he said, since administrators were comfortable with the presentation itself.
"From our seats, it's our job to make sure our programs do a couple of things—keep kids safe and support the board of education's policies," Bild said. "Those are the main things we think about when there's a problem to be solved. I'm not so sure we'd always view this particular instance as controversial."
Kasik said he has implemented a similar system a North, creating a "more purposeful structure" for reviewing potentially controversial speakers or topics. He said he only received two emails from parents concerned about Ahlquist's visit, and they were mainly to ask questions about the subject matter of her presentation.
Although board members agreed that there should be a codified procedure for approving guest speakers, some expressed concern about being too conservative with notifications.
Board Member Terry Pavesich said there should be a "fine line between good education and discussion and letting prejudice take over."
"It would greatly disappoint me if we give our parents the opportunity to opt out of things when they're not quite sure what the discussion will be, and then students miss out on opportunities to discuss some of these important issues that come up in their lives, whether it be religion or same-sex marriage," Pavesich said.
Board Members Nancy Kupka and Julia Beckman both questioned whether the new procedures for reviewing outside speakers would have a "chilling effect" on teachers' academic freedom and their willingness to cover controversial topics.
"Controversial is a judgment call," Kupka said. "I think there is a chilling effect if teachers think they have to jump through hoops every time they bring a speaker in."
McDonald said administration will take steps to formalize its procedures, but admitted they won't always get it right.
"The fact of the matter is that things one person thinks are controversial, another does not," McDonald said. "My guess is that we'll make bad calls in some point in time—not on purpose, but someone will disagree. We have to accept that ... it's not possible to legislate everything."
Elmhurst Patch Editor Karen Chadra contributed to this report.
What's your take on Ahlquist's visit? Should parents have been notified? Did it qualify as controversial? Tell us in the comments.
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