Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

TOP STORY>> Board votes to remove stickers

IN SHORT: Beebe Schools end standoff with ACLU over
evolution-versus-creation disclaimer in textbooks.

By Joan McCoy
Leader staff writer

A six-month-long standoff between the Beebe School Board and the American Civil Liberties Union ended Monday night when the board voted 3-2 to remove disclaimers about evolution versus creation stuck to the inside covers of science books from the fourth grade through the twelfth.

Those voting for removing the stickers said they didn’t want school teachers educating their children about religious matters. They also wanted to avoid spending money on a lawsuit that should be used for educating children.

But it was clear from comments by board member Sherill Strayhorn that the board didn’t appreciate the ACLU exerting pressure to get the stickers cut out of the books before school starts next month.

“I wish we had the money to challenge the ACLU,” Strayhorn said, adding that “people cower to the ACLU like a scalded dog.

“That galls me more than anything else,” he added.

Contacted Tuesday morning, Rita Sklar, ACLU executive director, said she was pleased with the vote in spite of the reasons for it.

“I’m glad they’re doing the right thing regardless of their reasons,” Sklar said. “Of course, I wish it was out of respect for religious liberty and the separation of church and state. It is the separation of church and state that allows for the rich diversity of freedom of religion we enjoy in this country.

“I’m also glad they are avoiding costly litigation that would only harm the students and the school district,” she said.

Exactly how close the district was to being sued, as the ACLU of Arkansas threatened in January, is unclear. The ACLU contacted the school district about the stickers as soon as a federal judge ruled in Georgia that similar stickers in science books used by the Cobb County School District had to come out. But that ruling was appealed almost immediately, buying the Beebe board a little time, and that appeal is still in progress.

Butch Rice, president of the Beebe School Board, wanted to wait about voting at least until after district patrons were made aware that a vote was imminent.

The disclaimer stickers have been “a sleeping giant,” that the board has not spoken of in months, he said.

The looming lawsuit is not just a board problem, it is a district problem, he said.
“I wouldn’t want our district to think we pushed something under the rug until a one-night meeting,” he said.

Rice voted against removing the stickers as did Lorrie Belew, who told Dr. Belinda Shook and the three board members who voted to remove the stickers that she understood that they wanted to avoid a lawsuit, but she said, “Sometimes when you need to stand up for something, you need to stand up for it.”

Voting for taking out the stickers were Strayhorn, Harold Davis and Tommy Vanaman.
Vanaman told the board that he believed the stickers were illegal and he feared the loss of $1.5 million in federal funds if they remained in the textbooks.

Davis brought a prepared statement to the meeting and read it before the vote.

He wrote in part: “I was taught at a very young age that God created the heavens and earth. He spoke everything into existence except for man. He created man in his own image, with his own hands and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life….This is the belief that I hold sacred and have taught my children at a very young age….I believe that these discussions are the responsibilities of parents not public schools. I also believe the insertion of a sticker in a book could generate discussions that may be contrary to the belief of parents.

“The bottom line is that I do not want my children taught these issues by teachers who I have no knowledge of their own beliefs,” he wrote.

Shook, in her first month as school superintendent, told the board the stickers could be cut out without damaging the books and she recommended doing so.

Evolution is not an area of concentration in the district’s science program, she said. Furthermore, her own two children used the books and never even noticed the stickers were there.

In fact, when the issue was raised in January, no one including the school board and Dr. Kieth Williams, Shook’s predecessor, was aware that the stickers were in the books.
Former board members say the stickers were approved sometime before Williams was hired as superintendent in 1996.

Tom Jenkins, who was on the school board at that time, said earlier this year that he couldn’t recall why the stickers were placed in the books. However he remembered that a group of parents was concerned about stories of witchcraft in an elementary textbook. It is likely, he said, that the evolution sticker was an outgrowth of that issue and the product of a parent committee put together to select books.

Adopting text books is a yearly function of the school board, but Rice said when the issue arose that the existing board was never asked about the stickers.

“We have to vote on text books every year and we didn’t know about those stickers,” he said then. “I guess it’s just one of those things. You get new science books and those stickers go on.”

But Tuesday night when the board talked about cutting the stickers out, they also said that whether they cut them out or left them in, their decision was bound to anger many.
Even those who agreed with the statements on the stickers would likely be upset about the lawsuit that was inevitable unless they were removed, the board said.