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Grosse Pointe Farms

April 17, 2013

District’s decisions on Santorum speech continue to draw criticism

By April Lehmbeck
C & G Staff Writer

GROSSE POINTE FARMS — The district’s decision to allow former presidential candidate Rick Santorum to speak through an opt-in permission process has some people accusing the district of playing politics.

Several people who attended the April 15 school board meeting spoke on the issue, criticizing the district’s decisions on the speech. Some speakers received loud clapping and standing ovations from the crowd.

The scheduling of the speech for April 24 was made possible through a fundraising campaign by a student organization at the high school.

“The assembly … was organized as a result of the extraordinary efforts of a student club at South High School, known as the Young Americans for Freedom,” Principal Matthew Outlaw stated in a letter to the South community.

Although Santorum was supposed to speak on leadership and community service, district officials discovered that he had not spoken at other high schools and the district would not be provided a prior copy of the speech to ensure the message focused on the agreed-upon topics, according to a letter from district officials.

That was when the district felt they needed to cancel the speech. The decision drew criticism.

When the speech was initially canceled, Santorum didn’t stay quiet on the issue.

“It’s a sad day when liberal educators are allowed to influence young minds — extending free speech rights only to those who share their liberal views,” he stated on his Facebook page April 9. “The cancellation of my speech in Grosse Pointe, Michigan later this month has nothing to do with the content of a speech, but rather the context of my convictions.”

The district changed its decision with what they’ve called a compromise.

The district said it received the assurances it needed to feel comfortable about the topic of the speech. They chose to reinstate the speech, but with an opt-in permission process.

“With this compromise, families will have the opportunity to discuss and determine prior to the event whether they wish their student to participate,” Superintendent Thomas Harwood said in a statement about the speech. “Staff will be given that same opportunity. Those who choose not to participate will continue with their regularly scheduled school day.”

The district stated that they recognized Santorum’s leadership qualities, and the district works to provide many opportunities for students to hear various viewpoints.

The opt-in process didn’t sit well with some in the community, who came to the April 15 meeting to voice their issues with an opt-in versus opt-out permission process.

“Students have listened to motivational speakers this year that they were not required to opt-in for,” parent Peter Durand said.

Others said that the district has previously used opt-out permission.

Some complained that teachers had made political statements about Santorum or planned tests that day.

However, prior to public comment, Harwood had said that a directive has been given that no tests will be given that day. 

Harwood commented on the opt-in process early in the meeting.

“The opt-in process reflects that we believe a parent is the first teacher in the lives of their students,” Harwood said.

One resident applauded the district for reaching the compromise and said the district should focus on coming together.

During the beginning of the board meeting, board President Joan Dindoffer gave a brief statement about the speech.

“The Grosse Pointe School System Board of Education is committed to freedom of thought and freedom of speech,” she said. “We are dedicated to our students becoming critical thinkers.”

In his letter to the community, Outlaw stated that he is excited for the learning opportunity this event provides.

“As principal, I cannot apologize enough for this lack of clarity on our part, but I am excited about the potential learning experience that Senator Santorum’s visit may have for our students,” Outlaw stated. “Whether the personal beliefs of a speaker are in agreement with your beliefs or not, we can learn so much from those that have such a wealth of knowledge and experience.

“I am hopeful that this assembly will be a great learning experience for all in attendance and also be an event that demonstrates the class and dignity of the South student body,” he stated.

The speech is a school event and is not open to the public.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer April Lehmbeck at alehmbeck@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1043.