Simpson criticized for decision not to air Obama speech


Lindbergh Superintendent Jim Simpson’s decision not to show President Barack Obama’s live nationwide education speech to district pupils Sept. 8 was criticized by students, parents and residents during a period for public comment at a Board of Education meeting that night.

Ten people, including three Lindbergh High School students, told Simpson and board members they disagreed with the superintendent’s decision not to show the speech. The speakers said they were disappointed by the decision, with some contending a “vocal minority” usurped a learning opportunity for district pupils.

But Simpson’s decision was backed by one resident who spoke and by Board of Education members, who said they fully supported the superintendent’s reasoning.

Before the period for public comment, board President Ken Fey directed the ad-ministration to draft a policy to deal with

similar situations that might arise in the future.

“… As you all know, the decision was made not to show President Obama’s speech today to the students in our district. Over the weekend and on the holiday, I had the chance to read many e-mails and I also talked with many teachers, parents and residents of this school district about this event …,” he said.

Noting the event “happened very quickly,” Fey said, “Our administration picked it up about Wednesday of last week and by Friday morning, a decision had been made on this already because it had to be made. Monday was a holiday (Labor Day) and Tuesday was right on us. In this hyper-charged political landscape which we live in today, this type of event could occur again. As a board president, I am directing the administration to draft a policy or a procedure to deal with these events …

“I will also direct the administration to find a way where the teachers in this district do contact a curriculum department head so the teachers can use this speech in the near future in their classrooms. Decisions are made every day. Whether they turn out right or wrong, there is one thing that I do know: You must make all of them learning experiences. This decision is no different. We will learn from this …,” he said.

Simpson said he appreciated the opportunity to draft a policy.

“… I do believe we’re in a new era and we certainly are going to have to have a policy to deal with controversial political requests and how we handle those. They’re certainly red hot and it has passion on both sides of the political spectrum,” he said. “I also like the fact that President Obama’s speech, as President Fey mentioned, is not dead today. It lives on and so it’s archived. We have that … It will be turned over to the curriculum department and (Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction) Nancy Rathjen and her department then can use that and embed that in the curriculum where it makes sense and where it’s appropriate — the same way that a speech from any president would be appropriate in the right class in the right setting.”

Simpson then explained the basis for his decision.

“… First of all, I thought with this thing going so hyper-controversial, what does that look like when you have politics in the classroom? So I don’t think that many people went to that level. They were either for the president or against the president. It became a referendum on the president …,” he said, noting the speech for a lot of people “was a side show.”

The superintendent said he put himself in the position of the classroom teacher.

“… OK, I’m the teacher. I have my class in front of me … I’d say: ‘Those who have the exemption letter, please stand up and you are dismissed to go to the library. You don’t get to see the speech. Those who stay are going to see the speech.’ And I instantly became aware of the segregation that that would cause because everybody who got up is announcing that my family doesn’t support the president, and they now have been labeled as clearly as if you’d put a sign on them. Every student that sits is labeled positive.

“And then I thought: How does that play out on the playground when students confront each other? … How does that play out in the home when families ask as families will: Well, tell me Johnny, who stood up and left? Who were your classmates that left? …,” he said.

Simpson continued, “I know because of the e-mails that I was getting and how angry and passionate they were that teachers would be getting those same e-mails. So if we were actually to say to teachers: You handle it. Do as you wish. And another thing were handing them is: You handle the angry parent in your classroom. If you have three or four angry parents that are angry at you for doing this, all of a sudden you don’t have administration between you and them …”

Furthermore, all of the e-mails he received — more than 100 — then would have gone directly to teachers, he said, which he did not want to happen “because some of them were, frankly, crude and not very classy. And so (that’s) what I was thinking of and I know that there’s lots of people who have second guessed that decision, but I do believe that without a doubt it is a decision that caused a normal learning day to occur, although I’m not sure that the adults would agree …”

During the public-comment period, Maggie Hake, a Lindbergh High School junior, said, “… The fact that today our school silenced one of the most important people in the world, the leader of our country who wanted to speak to our students directly, saddens me. I understand parents wanting to have a say in what their children are exposed to, but protecting the students from our commander in chief is discouraging to me. As a student who worked hours on the campaign supporting this man, I am now looked upon as a student who advocates for someone our school needs to be shielded from … It suggests that we should not listen to what our president has to say.

“I’ve been involved with government through schools since before I could read. Whether voting for the president, stem-cell research or learning about government and politics in required classes, I’ve always been encouraged to listen to both sides and form an opinion. Today I was not given that option to see him unless I was willing to miss school. I understand the difficult position you all have been put in. I don’t think it was a win-win situation for everyone, but I don’t understand what the school was shielding us from — goal-setting, the importance of an education, our future? These are all things my counselors and teachers talk to me about every day as I have two years until I embark on my journey to college. I feel it is my duty to the students and the 141 people who signed our petition on Friday night to point out that an option would have been harmless, that we missed out on a learning experience and that this has created a line of segregation in our school because now people look at me, a supporter of our president, as someone they should beware of …,” she said.

Resident Suzanne Gentry said, “… I’m very upset. I didn’t expect it from this school district … I was floored when this even came up. I don’t think it would have taken much effort to send a letter out such as the ones I’ve seen from other districts that went out that said: Your children don’t have to watch this. They can go to a study hall. I can’t see how much effort that really would have taken to send that kind of a letter, and that would have alleviated the problem with the teachers and would still have allowed our students to hear the president talk to them directly — a president that was democratically elected by the majority of the people. It bothers me that the vocal minority is taking over all of our political processes …

“I didn’t think I should have to call beforehand and say: Please show this. I just thought it would happen. Evidently, I’m not in the type of school district that I thought I was. So there again, I’m just very upset that you were bowing to pressure from the vocal minority and disrespecting the office of the president, which the majority of Americans voted for …,” she said.

Resident Dan Anderson-Little said, “… I realize that these are difficult times to lead public institutions and it was made particularly difficult by the short time from when this emerged as a controversy on Wednesday night to when the decision needed to be made on Friday morning. I know the board and the administration are under tremendous pressure and appreciate the difficulty of making decisions. However, I am disappointed by the decision that was made. It has been said by Dr. Simpson that the reason for making this decision was to protect children from (partisan) politics and segregation that might result from that in the classroom. I find that disingenuous as all of the schools — elementary, middle and high school — last November had mock votes.

“My children knew what all of their friends were voting and I assume they thought that that’s what their parents were voting for as well. It was wide open who was in favor of what.

“It seems to me that the real issue was protecting children from controversy and rancor. If that was the reason, I think it would be helpful to state that. Because of that, I am particularly pleased to hear both Dr. Simpson and members of the board welcoming the creation of a policy on how to deal with this,” Anderson-Little said. “I would urge you when you create that policy to think also in terms of short time frames and not long time frames. I think we have potentially set a very dangerous precedent. If you wait long enough and then allow a controversy to bubble up in just a couple of days, it will put tremendous pressure again back on the administration and the board and the temptation again will be to try and tamp down the controversy and the rancor rather than to create more openness. It is a chilling thought that a small group of people can control what is taught and what is seen at school.

“I realize that this is archived and we can watch it at home and I will watch it at home with my children. We’ve already been speaking about it. But it is different seeing a historic speech live than it is on movie or on YouTube … I think we missed an opportunity to fulfill one of the main objectives of a public school district and that is to build responsible and respectful citizens … I think this would have been a wonderful opportunity for our children to hear from our president, to build respect, if not for the man at least the office, and I’m sorry we missed that opportunity …,” he said.

Resident Susan Murphy said she supported Simpson’s decision not to show Obama’s speech.

“… I just want to say I really appreciate the decision you made. I think there’s just no place for a political infomercial in our schools and for learning. And that’s fine, we can see it on YouTube …,” she said. “You have discussions and debates about things. My kids, I mean when my kids saw the town hall, they know what’s what. Kids can figure it out. And I just want to say I hope that you don’t show it in school. We can see it. We can show it to our kids. There’s just no place for any political on either side. So I just hope the teachers don’t show it. I don’t think there’s a place for it on either side. So I appreciate your decision …”

During an interview with the Call, Simpson said he believes he made the correct decision not to show the president’s speech.

“… I know one thing. We had a very normal day on Tuesday (Sept. 8). It was a normal learning day, 100 percent …,” he said.