Obama speech blackout draws policy proposal

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Thursday, September 24, 2009
— A Janesville School Board member thinks the district needs a policy so that if a president wants to address schoolchildren, he or she will be able to do so.

The idea springs from the recent nationwide controversy over President Obama's speech to schoolchildren.

In Janesville, the administration issued a directive that allowed students to see the speech only if teachers sent home a letter asking parents' permission. Teachers were required to provide an alternative activity for students whose parents said no.

Teachers had little time to get a letter out before the speech, but it was recorded for possible use later. At least a few high school teachers showed it live.

Superintendent Karen Schulte said at the time that she imposed the restrictions because of threats of picket lines, parents pulling their children out of school and other "veiled threats."

School board member Lori Stottler said she is representing constituents who were upset by Schulte's action.

"It's our president, and if we are allowing a few people to censor out the president of us on a fear tactic, we're doing our children no justice," Stottler said.

If Schulte received veiled threats, then the school board should have known about that, Stottler said, "unless you're using it as an excuse for not doing that."

And as for pickets, she said, "People picket all the time. This is a democracy. There's nothing unsafe about people picketing on public property."

Bill Sodemann, the school board's most outspoken conservative, said then-President George W. Bush was not allowed to speak in a Janesville school in 2004.

Bush spoke at the Holiday Inn Express.

"I think there's a big difference when a president wants to talk to students about personal accountability and listening respectfully and following dreams and a president who's coming in the midst of an election," Stottler said.

A policy could draw the line between an election speech and one like Obama's, Stottler suggested.

Stottler noted that Republican and Democrat politicians alike speak regularly in the local schools. She noted that Jessica Doyle, wife of the governor, was in Janesville this week to talk to students about the Wisconsin Covenant, which encourages students to plan for college.

Sodemann said he is open to a policy on this issue.

"As long as people are notified and they have a chance to opt out, I have no problem with that," Sodemann said.

Sodemann said he had no objection to anything Obama said in his speech, but he would object to Obama telling kids to go home and urge their parents to support his health-care initiative, for example.

Stottler noted that promoting diversity has been at the top of the school board's agenda, and here was an opportunity for students of color to hear a black president speaking about doing the right thing. "What a great role model."

Obama talked in his speech about taking responsibility, and that's a message on which Janesville school officials should act, Stottler argued. "The responsible thing to do is to show speech, admit errors and develop a policy encouraging the responsible thing to do."

Stottler noted that she was elected county clerk as a Democrat, but she said she'd be proposing a policy if the president in question were a Republican.

Stottler said she remembers listening to President Ronald Reagan's speech in 1988, when she was tutoring at a high school.

"It was a strong moment. My dad, who's the Democratic union organizer, he didn't rush into school and take me out of it. It was his president, and he felt it was part of my civics education that I hear that."

What's next

Discussion of a possible school board policy that would prescribe how schools should handle a presidential speech will be on the agenda of the Janesville School Board's meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13. No immediate decision is expected.

Last updated: 11:18 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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