Friday, November 06, 2009

A Doubly Wrong School Assembly

It’s sometimes difficult to be appropriately critical of someone you know and respect. But it is important to speak out when you see something wrong.

The St-Ex reports that last Friday Roy High School held a special assembly “to which only minority students were invited to listen to Dave Tafoya, a Hispanic member of the city council and candidate for mayor.” School principle Dale Pfister and Mr. Tafoya are portrayed in the article as essentially dismissing criticism of their actions.

I know Mr. Pfister. He was a great principle when he was at a school that some of my children attended. My wife had many opportunities to work with him and members of his administration. She holds him in very high regard. But in this case, Mr. Pfister did the wrong thing, even if he meant well by it.

Error #1
The first thing wrong about this assembly was that it implied official endorsement of a political candidate, even if such was not intended. It does not matter that Mr. Tafoya helps with the driver education program at the school and is known by the students.

Public institutions supported by taxpayer dollars must studiously avoid anything that smacks of political endorsement. If you are going to invite a current political candidate or someone supporting a ballot item to speak, you must also invite their opponents, so as to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

At the time of the event, Mr. Tafoya was a candidate for Roy City Mayor. (He lost on Tuesday.) The election was only a few days away. Some of the students at the assembly were old enough to vote. Even if political matters were not discussed, Mr. Tafoya’s appearance cannot be separated from campaigning.

Error #2
The second problem with this assembly is that there simply is no way to justify the racial separation that occurred. The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that racial separation by design could never be considered equal treatment in our public institutions. An entire body of law has been built on this basis. Separating a group of students for different treatment based on their race violates these accepted principles.

Mr. Pfister talks about “subgroups” using phrases like “this subgroup” and “these subgroups.” How is this different than the divisive racial overtones of the use of phrases like “those people” when referring to those of different races than our own?

In his defense, Mr. Pfister says that we have programs aimed at specific racial categories because we have evidence of different levels of performance among such categories. He reasons that having students from a “subgroup” attend an assembly intended to inspire them to better performance isn’t much different than the programs he mentions.

Actually, race based programs have to be carefully designed to comport with fairly sticky legal requirements. Many school programs manage to exceed these requirements without being challenged. Still, an arbitrary decision by a local administrator to call students of certain races to a separate meeting very likely violates the law.

Beyond the legal ramifications of such a meeting is the message sent by a public institution. There is no way to get past the implication that the message to students of certain racial “subgroups” was that the institution believes these students to be basically inferior to students of “subgroups” that were not invited to the assembly.

The larger message sent is one of divisiveness rather than inclusiveness. Mr. Pfister is old enough to remember the civil rights battles of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. How is it possible that this could be lost on him?

I respect Mr. Pfister and know him to be a fine school principle in many ways. But in this case he messed up big time on two levels. He should admit his mistake. If he still believes that he did nothing wrong, he needs some help from his superiors to correct his understanding.

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