Mindful of concerns about the constitution, the Salem-Keizer School District (SKSD) has altered its approach to the dissemination of religious literature in district schools.
The story began about two years ago, when Lisa Godwin’s daughter was handed a pamphlet by her teacher, an invitation to an after-school Good News Club run by a Christian missionary group. Godwin, a Salem parent, was concerned that public school staff would distribute religious literature on public school property; she felt her child was denied First Amendment protections. School staff distribution made it appear, Godwin believed, that the school district endorsed the club.
She told us she complained multiple times to no effect; after Salem Weekly’s coverage, she received a call from the district, inviting her thoughts. As we followed the story through the spring, we learned that SKSD was reviewing its policy, and involving Godwin in the process.
With the beginning of a new school year, we contacted SKSD to learn the results of the considerable work that had been done.
Mary Paulson, Chief of Staff of SKSD, told us. “Over the summer, we revised the policy and process related to how the district will manage requests from outside agencies or nonprofits to disseminate flyers and other materials to students.
These changes were approved by the superintendent’s cabinet and took into consideration the feedback we have received over the last several years from school staff, agencies, nonprofit organizations and parents.”
The district now limits the fliers it distributes to only those related to an established medical organization providing medical screening, a public safety/emergency services agency and the Salem-Keizer Education Foundation.
In the Work Instruction link Paulson provided us (available on the Willamettelive site attached to this story) about the dissemination or display of materials from outside sources, point 2.4.2 allows latitude for individual principals with the proviso that any literature distributed in public schools “cannot be religious or political.”
Lisa Godwin took the time to read the new rules. She said, “Overall, I feel very positive and encouraged about the much-needed changes in distribution of outside material to the students. I appreciate that district administrators responded consistently to this issue for the past year and opted to adhere to the constitutional separation of church and state.”
Godwin’s only concern is that the actions by SKSD are a procedure, not a policy. “The difference is a policy is enacted and voted on by the school board,” she says. “A procedure is an administrative action that can be changed without public notification. If the district’s top administrators leave, a new administration could quietly change the procedure without public notice or discussion.”
As long as the new procedure is followed, however, Salem-Keizer students will not be subject to what critics of the old system called an unconstitutional blending of church and state.
“The kids can focus on excelling and learning, and their parents can choose whether or not to provide religious guidance in the home or through an external religious organization,” according to Godwin
So although she feels the issue bears continued public vigilance, Lisa Godwin characterizes herself as “greatly supportive of the new changes.”
Her own daughter no longer attends grammar school, but Godwin’s efforts, and those of the “school staff, agencies, non-profit organizations” Paulson mentioned – and not the least, attentive SKSD administration – seem to have created a real change.