Superintendent addresses Academic Freedom

by Ana J. Beard

It isn’t hard to forget that our new Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) superintendent, Dr. Alex Apostle, has spent the last 7 years, before coming to Missoula, as a private real estate investor in Arizona when he says things like “my job [as superintendent] is very similar to remodeling a house.”

It’s even harder to forget that he has been retired from the education system since 2001 when he says “Honestly, this issue [the school board meeting on Feb. 10] should have been dealt with at a building level, but I wanted to sit back and see how this would be handled in Missoula,” when he addressed Hellgate High School faculty at a special, short-notice meeting on Feb. 17 that Apostle had called specifically to talk to the teachers about academic freedom. (He is going around, addressing every school about this as well.)

While Apostle’s intentions were pure during the meeting and as appreciative most people are that he owned up to his mistakes and didn’t place blame on anybody else with the turnout of the Big Sky censorship controversy, it was hard to ignore the snickers and whispers of the teachers around me.

Apostle kicked off the meeting by informing everybody that “academic freedom in this district will be supported.” The reaction was much like the one I see and hear in a room full of teenagers-people rolling their eyes, trying to hold back laughter, even a few whispers (my favorite one–“Bulls***”).

He told the group that he supported Kathleen Kennedy (the Big Sky teacher who, according to the school board, violated school board policy by showing her Wildlife Bio class “The Story of Stuff”) and that he had expressed his support in an e-mail to the school board.

To be completely honest, Dr. Apostle, an e-mail is NOT enough.

During the meeting, Apostle told the teachers about his proposal to create a committee that would be made up of a diverse group of staff, faculty and even students. They would go over school district policies and clarify and/or revise them. One person stood up and asked whether this plan would be carried out before or after the May 6 school board elections. Apostle said he wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible, so, before.

At one point in the meeting I asked about the urgency to his plan: Is this really a good idea if there are members of the school board that obviously don’t have what’s best for the students at heart? It seems that there are a few board members that would just like to push their beliefs into the education system, and that is definitely not a good sign for MCPS.

The group had the opportunity to ask questions. Many people expressed concern for Kennedy, for themselves (as educators) and their curricula. Science teachers referred to the evolution unit that a few of them are just about to start and asked whether that could be the next target. One teacher stated that a precedent had already been set by Feb. 10’s school board meeting. One teacher even stood up and talked about how her own teenage daughter had been told which positions to do in order to conceive a boy or a girl in her Prep For Life class, and watched Knocked Up in english class, with no relevance to the curriculum and without parent notification (if a teacher plans on showing a movie that is rated R, they are supposed to send a note home for parent approval).

Initially, I had planned on not bringing attention to myself. My principal knew I was coming, as did a few staff members but it was supposed to be a meeting for certified teachers.  I couldn’t help myself though.

Apostle kept saying “it is obvious the community has spoken,” saying that the community agreed with the school board decision. I raised my hand, stated my name and that I wasn’t a teacher, that I was a student. Then I asked how exactly the community had spoken if there had been little student input. He talked about the letters to the editors in the Missoulian and the people that were at the initial meeting regarding “The Story of Stuff” and Kennedy.

At one point a teacher asked about the repercussions to Kennedy from the school board’s decision. Apostle attempted to answer, saying that the meeting wasn’t to punish her – that it was to review the material presented and see if it violated policy 2313.

While “The Story of Stuff” was initially questioned under 2313, that was not what the school board’s decision dealt with. Maybe he got nervous, or it was a slip of the tongue, but he had his facts wrong. I spoke up, respectfully, and said that the Feb. 10 meeting dealt with whether “The Story of Stuff” violated policy 2330, which is about academic freedom and the handling of controversial issues. While the school board ruled 4-3 that the movie violated the policy, they decided not to issue any punishments to Kennedy. Apostle seemed thrown off by being corrected by a 17 year-old. The teachers around me, once again, repressed laughter and some gave me thumbs up or said “Nice job”.

A while later I raised my hand again, it didn’t take me (or the teachers around me) long to notice that he seemed to be avoiding calling on me. A former teacher of mine even turned around at one point and whispered “I think he’s scared of you, kiddo.” Finally when I was the only one raising a hand, he called on me. “Wasn’t academic freedom created to protect teachers and to prevent something like this from happening,” I asked?

I received a very hesitant “yes.”

I continued, “If there is an open discussion with the material, isn’t that balance?” (One of the points brought up against the presentation of the movie was that there was not a balance of views.)

Apostle said that he was not in a position to review the policy at the time.

I understand that Apostle had legal limitations with what he could say in the meeting, and he chose his words carefully and answered questions to the best of his ability but the general vibe of the meeting was a tad chilly towards him.

After the meeting I approached Apostle. A science teacher was expressing his concern with how Kennedy had been targeted and how it could be any of the teachers next. Apostle told him he would just have to have faith in the administration. The teacher mentioned how Kennedy didn’t even have a chance to defend herself. Once again, I spoke up and pointed out that Kennedy did, in fact, have the chance to defend herself but had been told she didn’t need to. Apostle cut me off and said, “We told her to not even come.”

Maybe, if she hadn’t gone, the attack wouldn’t have been straight to her face. Maybe the meeting would have been less emotional. But if Kennedy had not gone to the meeting, then what chance did she stand against the school board and Mark Zuber (the Big Sky parent who had the initial complaint and spent over 100 hours working on his presentation to the school board)? You can’t defend yourself if you’re not there.

I reiterated to Apostle that I really did not believe the community had spoken. The letters to the editors and the e-mails he was referring to when he talked about “the community”, were a misrepresentation. And obviously he didn’t read the letter to the editor signed by nearly 80 people, or hear about the screening and discussion of “The Story of Stuff” at the courthouse that the Missoula County Democrats Party set up.

Few students had the chance to speak, most didn’t know how.  He said something about how he should tell the principals to inform students on how to input. I asked about his committee, would it be open to student input? He replied with what I felt was a very sarcastic response: “Do YOU want to be on the committee?” He proceeded to tell me how he hoped to include student opinion–Hellgate’s student body president, Sentinel’s student body president, but not Big Sky’s because he doesn’t want the committee to be “bias”.

Excuse me, but isn’t excluding one of Missoula’s three public high schools bias in itself?

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  1. klemz

    Nice post. A bit long, but worth the read.

    They hired a developer? Really? Hows the opencut after school program?

  2. LMG

    Ana,
    contrary to the first commenter I appreciate the length and detail of your first-hand report. I remember being in high school and being completely left out of the decision making process. You are to be lauded for insisting on student involvement.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. klemz

    I don’t appreciate the length and detail? Funny, I don’t recall saying that. But you stated as much in stuffy dictum of a self-righteous patron, so it must be true.

  4. JC

    Ana, thanks so much for the followup! If you weren’t posting this stuff, I don’t know how we would find out about it from the “insider” perspective.

    Keep it up, and let us know how the story progresses. I think the whole “community” should know what is happening with the review.

    And thanks for having the courage to stay in these folks’ faces against their obvious attempts at intimidation. Your characterizations of Apostle lend much insight into why we are going down this road, in this way with this issue–and probably many more issues yet to come.

  5. Daemus

    Anna,

    I would stage a sit-in over this. Or a walk out. Walk outs have the added benefit of allowing one to miss school and go skiing or sleeping. Political activism has its benefits!

    • How pathetic of you to trivialize that which our nation was built upon.

      • Daemus

        ?

        Trivialize?

        I think she should organize some kind of student action against this. I still think if it’s a walk-out she should do something fun with the day off. (Perhaps you somehow misinterpreted the tone of that comment?)

        Why so quick to hostility jhwygirl? I’m a little baffled at how you managed to twist my encouragement of someone using their free speech rights as trivializing our country’s right to free speech?

        Take it easy, lay off the caffeine or something. Jeez.

        • Maybe I should have left your 90210 comment up?

          You’re trolling.

          • Daemus

            Jhwygirl, the 90210 comment, which I did think was funny, was not posted by me. You are one of these that assume when multiple people are hanging out posting from a public computer or a shared server, that they are the same person. They are not.

            We are not trolling. We have all been regular commenters on this blog since its inception. We also know who you are, who you work for, and will continue to be kind enough to not reveal this, even though you frequently use this blog to exact grudges you carry from work.

          • It was from the same IP address, and without single-digit minutes. And you happen to be posting from the same one today. How convenient.

          • Daemus

            That’s because we were sitting at the same computer… the fact that you’re digging around through IP addresses making these kinds of assumptions about people’s identities should be embarrasing to you.

            Aside from this point, I still think the 90210 comment should go back up because, for geeks like my friends and I, that was halarious. Why censor that in the first place? It was funny.

            That you call that sort of humor trolling makes me think you take yourself a little too seriously.

        • JC

          I think your tone implied that kids who do political activism, do it so they can be goof-offs. Meaning, any excuse is a good excuse for being lazy or self-absorbed.

          Such be the nature of blogs and commenting. If you didn’t add in the comments about skiing and sleeping as snark, then I guess you’d be taken aback by jhwygirl’s comments.

          Much better during a walk-out for the students to do something constructive: like go and picket the School Board, or schedule a viewing of the movie at a theatre, and go watch in en masse.

          • anabanana2

            As great as that would be, our school (and the district) are not affected by walk-outs. We’ve done some before for the war in Iraq and everybody said we were doing it so we could get out of class, even the students who felt very serious about it were accused of just skipping. Sadly, walk-outs just are effective anymore.

          • JC

            I know about the walk out for the war a few years ago–I got to witness it first ahnd. It may not have had an effect on the school or District. But it sure had an effect on me. Made me feel very proud that the upcoming generation gave a sh*t about things. Enough so to accept the potential consequences that come with a walk out. Gave me some hope!

            • anabanana2

              And I wish our school administration had felt the same way you felt, unfortunately they didn’t. I understand a school can’t do anything to change the War In Iraq but they could’ve at least acknowledged that there were people who walked out becasue they did really feel strongly about the issue. But instead we were seen as a bunch of truant students (I have to say, the hour and a half afterschool detention we all had to serve was the most fun detention I have ever served. Imagine roughly…150(?) students in a gym, only 4 “supervisers”, and a number of cellphones with pizza delivery places on speed dial! :])

          • Daemus

            JC, I participated in a very controversial walk-out in high school, it successfully changed school policy, and we also went skiing for two days. These things are possible.

          • JC

            How special.

            And just which policy did you change?

            And how do I know you were participating in the walk out, and not just using other students’ efforts to mask your own intransigence and desire to take advantage of others’ efforts, to goof off for a few days?

            You’re not passing the smell test here.

          • if you ignore a troll it will go away. it craves attention.

          • It’s the university republicans, guys. I’m not saying that to be snarky – I’m saying that because I know.

          • klemz

            “Meaning, any excuse is a good excuse for being lazy or self-absorbed.”

            Well, pretty much. Do you disagree that 75% of the non-profit world exists for its own sake? It’s easy work.

          • JC

            I would disagree, klemz. I don’t think describing that “75% of the non-profit world exists for its own sake” is in any way accurate.

            Nor do I believe it is “easy work.” Au contraire, it can be some of the hardest work, with the longest hours, the little pay, and little gratitude.

            I’ve spent the majority of my last 23 years working for or with nonprofits. I’ve probably worked with 60-80 nonprofits in that time (as contractor or consultant). And almost none of what I have experienced would describe the mission of those groups as being “for its own sake.” Cheap shot.

            And why did you have to bring this sort of issue into the discussion. You were then one who was dissin’ “grasshoppers” a bit ago. This is like talking about the chickens chasing the grasshoppers. ;-)

          • klemz

            I chose 75 because at the time I was thinking of Mean Joe Greene.

            That’s a fair point, and I don’t mean to generalize, but I know a more than my share of do-nothing non-profit folks. I think that statement was still more tempered than the standard issue “everyone in journalism just writes off of press releases” generalization, as long as were on the topic of long hours, meager pay, listening to bullshit, etc.

            That’s just more grasshoppers though.

          • JC

            Well, take it from a guy who has written more than a few dozen press releases for nonprofits (and some for profits), if I got a one line quote in the article, I’d be feeling pretty high. If a writer ever were to have taken my PR’s verbatim and built a story around them, it would have been nirvana. Never happened.

            I don’t know if that’s more commentary on the quality of my PR’s, the nonprofit, the issue, or the journalist, but no matter… Googling one’s self can be a pretty humbling (or humiliating) experience. It sure can teach you how to be a more effective PR writer, though. Or to look for another job…

            But that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen a few instances, and I’m not pointing fingers in here, of writers letting the PR people do their work for them. But I woudn’t put it in the “75%” category.More like 16%. I’ll let you figure out whose jersey that one belongs to.

  6. Despite the words coming out of Apostle’s mouth, his hypocrisy is loud and clear. He’s also clearly not functioning as autonomously – outside of the political arena of the School Board – as might be expected for someone who should be advocating for what might be best for Missoula’s children, in terms of eduction, instead of facilitating and advocating what might be best for a politically appointed board.

    We told her (Kennedy) not to come.

    Then there’s his suggestion that NOT including a Big Sky High representative on his so-called committee ‘that would be made up of a diverse group of staff, faculty and even students’ is to prevent bias.

    I’d suggest that both are further examples of censorship.

    What shambles have Missoulians had placed upon them with the hiring of Apostle? Now I have to wonder, given not only his laizze-faire attitude to what he most certainly should have known was an important issue, but his continued dog-and-pony show over the whole sordid affair.

    I wonder who all the “we” was that told Kennedy not to attend. Was it in the name of the school board? Was it a call? An email?

    Ana – Like JC, I thank you for your courage to confront the issue and to tell us about it. There’s something wrong over there on South Sixth Street, and it’s rolling out over onto our schools I don’t know how we’d know about it without you having spoken out.

  7. could be time for a professional journalist to step in here j-girl and help shed some light on just what is going on in our school district administration offices. how about it KPAX, Indy, Missoulian, KUFM???? is censorship of information encouraged because of some political/religious viewpoint by top administrators? is this the kind of atmosphere we want our kids to learn in? is advocating censorship in america the kind of example we want to set for our kids?

    i’m just a stupid bear but i am very interested and curious just how the decision to censor really came about here. the more apostle says the curiouser i get….

    thanks ana. you just may have uncovered a rat’s nest here…

    just want to add the following:

    1st amendment of the Constitution of the United States:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
    the purpose of the law is self-explanatory; to save us from religious zealots who wish to cram their beliefs down our throats.

    • JC

      I think Ana’s doing a fine job here, pbear. Best reporting in town on the issue so far.

      And hey! We’ve got nested replies! How cool is that? Preview coming any time soon?

    • anabanana2

      And one more unfortunate side of high school–the first amendment doesn’t fully apply. You can see it with our publications (newspaper and yearbook), we aren’t even supposed to have memorials in the schools (which includes articles paying respect to a student or staff member who has passed away, or even a BENCH for a former student who had joined the army and died across seas).

  8. Larry Kralj, Environmental Rangers!

    Been there, done that…. ALL of that. The censorship thing that is. Now, the thing to fear most is SELF-censorship. That’s usually what happens when the shiite hits the public fan in a case like this. Teachers become very, very gunshy. They don’t WANT controversy, and they WANT their jobs! So they become Apostle’s disciples so to speak! It’s easier to go along to get along. Happens all the time. Believe it or not but MOST teachers are great teachers but lousy activists! They didn’t get into teaching to be activists. It’s just as easy to say to, “oh well. I didn’t really need to show that movie anyway. I have plenty of others”. It’s really not a good situation to put teachers into. That’s why the efforts of Ana and all the others in Missoula fighting this thing are to be commended. I’m there with y’all in spirit.

  9. Well, the Missoulian editorial really tackled the key issue today.

    Sigh.

      • Tyler Christensen

        If you can point to the place where the editorial “championed censorship,” I’ll eat my keyboard.

        • klemz

          Yeah, I don’t see any championing of censorship. It’s just one of the Missoulian’s non-position positions, which usually pisses me off, but I honestly think this issue is headed for the pickle barrel anyway.

        • Your piece lauding Zuber’s participation while leaving out any criticism whatsoever of the censorship it championed leaves a distinct impression that what he did was fine and without any negative consequence.

          Not quite a non-position, and I’m certain Zuber and his friends read that and feel they did a wonderful thing.

          Is an over exuberant football parent a good thing? Just because you disagree with the coach doesn’t make you right – or a good parent.

        • klemz

          It is a non-position because it raises a tertiary point. Tertiary, as in it addresses neither the complaint (MCSD’s chickenshit response) nor the counter-complaint (the politicization of schools). I’m sorry to be critical, Tyler, but there’s a soccer game going on here and this editorial is chasing grasshoppers on the sidelines. I’ve been digging Michael Moore’s coverage of this whole kerfuffle, but I see no purpose in this particular editorial.

          But to say it’s pro-Zuber et al, I just don’t see that.

          • School boards oversee schools, klemz. School boards are elected. You act as if this incident is politicizing schools when, in truth, they’re political animals to begin with.

            Perhaps they wouldn’t be if we empaneled a committee that was chosen based on qualifications instead of electing a board.

            Apostle, as I note above, is playing in that political field. And he isn’t paid to do that.

            I get what you are saying, I really do – but absent a mention of the consequence of Zuber’s act, it’s hard not to view it as cheerleading.

        • JC

          Calling Zuber’s actions “admirable” would be championing the censor, in my book. I’ve got a garage full of used keyboards, if you don’t want to eat your production one.

          The Missoulian piece is all about process, and not about substance. Many parents, including myself, have involved much more time than Zuber in the “process” of being involved in their childrens’ education.

          How about an editorial about the hundreds of unsung heroes championing the rights of their disabled children through the morass of Section 504 and the School District? I’ve logged many hundreds, if not thousands of hours doing so.

          But I guess the subjects that other parents have to deal with aren’t of an ideological nature.

          By choosing to single Zuber out for praise, the Missoulian has elevated ideological ramrod-ism to the top of communitarian to-do list. We can be assured that Zuber’s victory, coupled with the Missoulian’s high praise, will lead to more actions of this form.

          We are witnessing the conversion of the School Board into a partisan, political debating rink. And that does our school kids absolutely no good.

          “Story of Stuff?” Must have mentioned the newspaper business in there somewhere.

  10. AnonyMoose

    Ana,
    Thank you for your continued reporting on this issue! I applaud you, your efforts and all those who would fight to shine a light on censorship and other petty tyranny! Keep up the good work!

  11. Lizard

    one would hope that at institutions of higher learning fostering dialogue on a touchy subject would be more encouraged, but three years ago at the University of Montana, just the act of inviting a speaker who is critical of the Israel/US relationship was enough to spark an angry backlash among a few professors.

    the Anti-Defamation League exists essentially to monitor thoughts, and aggressively engages people in the intellectual community who tread to closely to some invisible line that keeps changing, gobbling up more terrain and claiming it as taboo.

    in a previous thread on this censorship topic, just mentioning israeli’s recent “war” brought out the shouts of holocaust denial. with well-funded censorship institutions like the ADL creating official relationships with media platforms like YouTube, valid criticism of Israeli policy will increasingly get lumped together with actual nuts and racists, which is, of course, the whole point.

    Norman Finkelstein is just one example of a professor denied tenure for his criticism of Israel, and two years ago was actually denied entry into Israel. is zionism really so fragile it can’t hold up beneath a little critical scrutiny?

    an unfortunate side effect of suppressing legitimate criticism is the validation it gives racists and anti-semites for their bigoted beliefs. similarly the bigoted adults-in-training at Big Sky high school will feel similar vindication, and the conversations that need to happen only get tougher and tougher, until maybe some day there really will be a space ship full of fat, worthless humans in orbit, waiting for a little trash collector robot to bring their sorry asses home.

  12. darrel

    OK, so i come trolling through here with my candidacy petition, and do I find signatures…
    No, everybody goes and hides…
    maybe i can run for dogcatcher instead….

    • JC

      Dude, what you talking about?

    • klemz

      Wasn’t Darrel Armstrong the point guard for the Bulls during the three-peat?

    • darrel- there’s real life. and there’s virtual life. don’t mix the two up. it will only frustrate. we are here to inform and will be glad to help you inform folks out here in the blogosphere about anyone who is running for local offices. but keep in mind it is only a tiny fraction of the folks you will reach if you were to write a letter to the editor in either the independent or the missoulian.

      i sometimes mention things i read in blogs to people i know in real life and they really don’t know what i am talking about. blogs are not springboards to political candidacy. they are more about commentary on the process with some snark about individuals thrown in for spice. most people who vote for local offices won’t even know what 4 & 20 is. a few will, and that percentage increases every year nationally. someday, blogs or the thing that evolves from blogs will probably be the main way people get their news but i think that is at least 10 years down the road before blogging is a dominant force in political influence.

      as it is, i think j-girl does more good than anyone i have seen here or even nationally in informing folks who are internet savvy and who care about our little town and state. i sometimes wonder when the energizer bunny will run out of spark but she is extremely effective at informing with tons of links and lots of info on issues and subjects which are extremely important to know about and act upon.

      that being said, i would caution you to temper whatever expectations you may have about blogging as a primal force of nature. not yet. it is useful and it is growing more useful as people grapple with how to use this mighty useful tool. but until then, politics is still all about shoe leather and meeting folks face to face. just ask obama, or even our own star, john engen. it is a hell of a lot of work and you need a lot of support from the real world. don’t mix up blogs and real life. it will only frustrate you.

  13. darrel

    My comment about trolling for votes was tongue in check.
    I don’t know if I have the skills it takes to make ffective political changes from the top at all, but I do have a long history as what they called an ‘outside agitator’, back in the Vietnam days, which was the height of student power
    in this country. I’m sort of an instigator, and I really like what I see here. You guys are aware and ready to start making a political and social impact on the world, not in a decade or two, but now. I can’t adequately express how important that is…if this planet and culture have a future
    you’ve got to be the ones that make it
    I hear comment after comment that says that you know what’s going on, and how to fix it.
    Don’t say..”but we can’t” or shift to something safely irrelevant. Just do it!
    …and that’s no Bull.

  14. darrel

    The essential problem is this. Through public education we have democratized learning and potential to make real contributions to the human environment. But we have not kept pace with the fact that many ‘under-age’ students now are more qualified than their elders in many aspects of running the society. In fact our society has walled itself off from this very possibility and treats students in many ways as a dependent and persecuted class with limited legal rights and remedies that would be available in theory to an adult dishwasher. Of course the society also has similar mechanisms it directs against the poor so in fact the dishwasher probably wouldn’t have them either. The combined effect put a person who is both poor and a student at the very margins of our society, which runs in the face not only of ideals of equal opportunity, but impoverishes us all at times like now, when there are pressing changes that require the full spectrum of our available talents. Things shouldn’t come to crisis before the culture is willing to accept new ideas…if that pattern continues sooner or later a crisis will come along that won’t wait for such retarded change. We may be faced with that already in global warming, exacerbated by possible global economic collapse. If we are to survive as a people, even as a species. We need to drop the barriers to full societal participation by any bright janitor or student willing to serve
    the common interest. We also need those folks, us, to come forward and demand…peacefully but firmly…to be let in. You have to act locally to create world wide changes, but good ideas can spread quite rapidly. I urge you ALL to attend the next School Board meeting, and bring all your friends.
    Student empowerment is human empowerment. How can we
    improve our lives if a basic requirement is you have to have stopped learning to be in a role with responsibility?




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