Bethel School District is in Eugene, Oregon, which is extremely liberal.
The Bethel School Board will be holding a special board meeting Thursday evening after it was forced to call off a meeting Monday where more than 100 angry parents stormed the district office and refused to wait their turn to speak.
The group overflowed the small board room at the district office just after 7 p.m., reportedly yelling repeatedly at board members before board Chairwoman Dawnja Johnson adjourned the meeting about 30 minutes after it started.
At least one meeting attendee said board members turned their backs to members of the crowd while they were speaking out, and parents alleged that board members were rude to some people who came to the meeting. District spokesman Pat McGillivray later said the board members who did turn their backs, did so after the meeting was canceled.
In the past, students celebrated Valentine’s Day with the traditional exchange of cards and candy. But the district slowly has been phasing out those traditions for the past few years.
The new holiday guidelines have not been fully implemented at each school yet, but no schools in the Bethel district will have traditional Valentine’s Day parties — with candy and card exchanges — this year.
That prompted some parents to accuse the district of selectively “taking away” other traditional school holidays as well.
For instance, Bethel district students no longer wear costumes for Halloween, and Thanksgiving celebrations have been renamed “harvest parties.”
Such “reinventing” of traditional school holidays doesn’t sit well with some parents.
“It’s not just about Valentine’s Day,” said Ryan Hosek, a parent of two Prairie Mountain students. “They’re isolating the majority of kids’ feelings for the sake of a few, and that’s just not how the world works. The lesson to be learned is to appreciate the difference and not ignore them because they make a small minority of people offended.”
District officials have said that organized holiday parties often end up excluding children whose parents don’t have the means to buy valentines, or students who don’t do well in a party setting, or students who don’t celebrate the holiday for religious or other reasons.
“As a public school system, we can’t intentionally plan events that we know will exclude children,” McGillivray said Tuesday. “Schools (in the district) are thinking creatively about how we celebrate with children and how we can have those activities at school where everyone gets to participate.”
McGillivray said each school in the district is taking a different approach to recognizing the virtues that Valentine’s Day celebrates, such as kindness and love. For instance, some schools are having friendship week, kindness month and buddy days, he said. There is no board rule against celebrating Valentine’s Day; in fact, students are allowed to bring Valentine’s Day cards to the school and hand them out to their classmates at the end of the school day, McGillivray said.
But parents who attended the meeting Monday night said that wasn’t the case at Prairie Mountain School a couple of weeks ago.
Lance Hughes, a parent of two Prairie Mountain students, said that he and his wife learned in early February that the school would not be celebrating Valentine’s Day, and that students should not bring cards or candy to school.
Hughes, in an interview Tuesday, said the movement to do away with holiday traditions has been gaining traction with the school district in recent years.
“The schools said it’s a financial thing and an inclusive thing, but talk to any parent at that meeting, and everyone has said they’ll pay for it,” Hughes said. “Removing holidays is not inclusive. That’s like telling a kid he can’t go outside to recess because he can’t afford a coat. If a kid can’t afford a coat, we find a way to pay for it.”
But other parents who were at the meeting Wednesday saw things differently.
Amanda Shrum, a parent of a Willamette High School student, described the crowd as disruptive, rude and frightening. “At one point, there were a couple of teenagers who were crying, and several parents who were there with their children left as soon as people started shoving to get to the front of the room. … It was frightening,” she said.
Shrum, who was raised as a Jehovah Witness, said that she didn’t celebrate holidays as a child for religious reasons, so she felt excluded from certain situations at school.
“I was the kid who was told to just stay home or go to the library, and it was humiliating,” she said. “At that level, you can’t really explain to the other kids why you’re not participating; they just don’t understand.”
Shrum said she sympathizes with people who say that public school should be fun and include celebrations. “A lot of times, the Valentine’s cards can just bring cheer and words of encouragement, which I think is a great thing,” she said. “But we can flip that in a way that doesn’t involve holidays.”
In the Eugene district, celebrations vary from school to school and classroom to classroom, according to district spokeswoman Kerry Delf.
“Some schools — McCornack Elementary School and Holt Elementary School come to mind — they have a school-wide practice of not holding class Valentine celebrations and card/candy exchanges,” she said.
Parents and others will have a chance to voice their opinions at a special board meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Shasta Middle School. “All of those who sign a card requesting to speak will be heard,” McGillivray said.