Update: Passports, Princesses and Priorities - Two Years Later

Two years ago, I spoke out to share my concerns about an ongoing student-run, Sun Prairie Area School District-sponsored event that is in clear violation of the district's anti-discrimination policy, which reads as follows:
"No student may be discriminated against in any school programs, activities or in facilities usage because of the student’s sex, color, religion, profession or demonstration of belief or non-belief, race, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status, homelessness status, sexual orientation or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability. Harassment is a form of discrimination and shall not be tolerated in the district. It is the responsibility of administrators, staff members and all students to ensure that student discrimination or harassment does not occur. (SPASD Policy JB)."
Since that time, I've had many productive, open and civil conversations with staff and administrators.  But little has changed.  While the faculty organizer has really done a great job of facilitating my concerns and trying to get the message to the students organizing these event, that message has not yet hit home in a way that satisfies the obligation of the district to follow, and model, its anti-discrimination policy.

Two years later, the changes to the DECA Father/Daughter Dance and Mother/Son Challenge events have been visible and well-intentioned, but as long as the titles of the events remain unchanged, these changes seem superficial and insincere (or, more cynically: an attempt at political correctness without being politically correct). You can see the updated descriptions of the events here:Father Daughter Dance Invitation 2014.pdf  and Mother Son Challenge Invitation 2014.pdf. The dance now includes the same challenges the boys get to do on their "special day".   And each application form now has a line like this in the FAQ:But it's cle "My daughter would rather attend the Mother/Son Challenge? That's wonderful! Please come!" "My son would rather attend the Father/Daughter Dance? That's wonderful! Please come!"  But it's clear by omission of the possible "options" that boys are not welcome to attend the "Father/Daughter Dance" (with Disney princesses) and that girls not really welcome to attend the Mother/Son challenge. I appreciate that the group has added a "family dynamic" section welcoming uncle/niece, mother/daughter etc teams.  One of my main concerns with the event was that it discriminates not just in terms of gender but by family status and in the highly problematic assumption that students can (and should) belong to a nuclear family with two-gender support.  But on the Father/Daughter Dance flier, NONE of the "alternative options" are a son/adult team and the flier stresses that "the high school students feel strongly about providing a special night for girls and a strong role model. However, please do what works for your family and what will make the night special for your child." Someone needs to help these students understand that you cannot pretend to be "welcoming" while directly stating that you "feel strongly" that the event is only of real value to girls (or boys, on the other flier).

Changing the language of the descriptions but keeping the old familiar titles (Father/Daughter Dance and Mother/Son Challenge) sends the loudest message of all: we are paying lip service to the idea of inclusion, but these events are for fathers and daughters and mothers and sons.  This sort of rhetorical duplicity is more offensive and psychologically damaging than simply excluding boy or girls altogether from the events.  The students who are organizing these events should be using this as a learning moment - to better understand the power of such language, the politics of exclusion, the impacts of gender stereotyping, and (above all) the legality of discriminating against students on the basis of sex, gender, and family status.  I don't think they can do that unless they change the titles of the events. 

Last year I reached out to the ACLU to see what action I'd have to take if the district refuses to make these student-organized events comply with the district's non-discrimination policy. I learned that's a big process and a big step, and one that I think could and should be avoided by cooperation and taking this issue seriously. I don't want to go there, but I'm starting to feel that nothing short of official action is going to make an impact here.  Every year I get more angry and frustrated with these events, as my own children are repeated exposed to this rhetoric.  Even though the staff advisor to the group has been very open to talking to me about my concerns, and has made significant efforts to make changes to the wording and address the issue, the changes have not resolved the core problem. Allowing the students to have the final say on this - even though that "say" is in clear violation of the anti-discrimination policy we find on nearly every single communication from the district, is problematic in so many ways. 

I haven't decided yet what I am going to do next.  I've asked to meet with the staff advisor again and hope to make more progress in sharing the impact of my concerns. But I may decide to file an official complaint with the district this year, since sharing my concerns with the organizers on an annual basis is getting tedious, even if they've been welcoming of the feedback.

But there's a better option.  That's where you come in.

Maybe other parents will join me this year in speaking out and sharing their concerns about the message these events are sending not just to the children in our entire district, but to the students in the DECA program who could be learning a much more valuable lesson than the one they are teaching my children.  What we need is some support from other parents and community members who agree that we should NOT be duplicating the stale stereotypes of the past to foster the leaders of the future.

These concerns do not have to be shared in an antagonistic or confrontational way - we are lucky to live in a district where our input is valued and where administration and staff take our concerns seriously.  But I do call on parents and others who share my concerns to reach out and speak up.  In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: 

You can reach Ms. Hart-Olson, the DECA advisor, at sholson@spasd.k12.wi.us and the district administrator, Dr. Tim Culver, at tculver@spasd.k12.wi.us.

Here's to making a difference where it matters most: in educating our kids in the best ways we can.  

- Heather  

UPDATE #1: When I wrote to Dr Culver on 3/18/2014, he wrote back right away, cc'ing the HS principal, the DECA advisor and a couple of others urging us all to set up a meeting "to resolve this permanently." I like the sound of that!  Collaboration and productive dialogue is always the best way to resolve these kinds of issues, and I'll keep you posted on what comes of it.

But the bottom line: LOCAL ACTION WORKS. If you don't speak up, no one can hear you. 


Update #2: I have an appointment 4/11 to meet with the DECA teacher/advisor, the HS principal, the athletics person and I think a "diversity" person from the district to discuss and (in the words of Dr. Culver) "permanently resolve" this issue. 

This is very promising and I'm looking forward to that conversation. If you live in Sun Prairie now is a really great time to send a note to Dr. Culver and Ms Hart-Olsen saying discrimination is never ok; so many parents have shared with me that they agree and there's nothing to fear in speaking out. They are both very nice and receptive to community input. We are sending a contradictory and dangerous message to our students when we sponsor events that promote exclusivity and stereotypes while we claim to promote a culture of inclusivity and belonging.


In the meantime, here's my original post, as relevant as ever on its 2-year anniversary:  


It's been a while since I had to post on the perils of gender-stereotyping and child-rearing, but I feel obligated to make this letter I recently sent to my school district an open one since this is an issue confronting many parents in many communities.  I don't at all enjoy sending these kinds of letters and, to be frank, I'm disgusted that I have to in 2012. 

We received an email on April 9, 2012 from our school district inviting us to two separate events: a father-daughter dance (for princesses!) and a mother-son challenge (for problem-solvers!).  While both of the events undoubtedly have merits in their own right, and I have learned since that the organizers might allow children of either gender to attend either event, the way they are juxtaposed and the wording on the registration forms makes crystal clear that boys only are to attend the problem-solving event (the form has spaces for "Number of sons" and "Name of adult") while only girls are to attend the Father-Daughter Dance.  While it seems one could bring a parent of either gender to these events, there's not really room for interpretation on which students are allowed to attend each event.  So unless your son wants a corsage and your daughter wants to sign up as a "son", I'm not really buying that these events are actually open to either gender. Everything in the language says otherwise.

As parents who hope to raise strong, confident, independent children, we feel we have enough problems dealing with social and political pressures that replicate gender stereotypes and sex-based discrimination without having to deal with the outright celebration of explicit gender bias in our schools.  This is our family's response to that message.  The original message from the district is below it; I left out the contact info for the program coordinator, as she is the advisor to a student group which organized the event - I want to make clear that my concerns are not intended to personally criticize this educator or her program.   I have since heard from the district and am pleased to report that they are taking these concerns very seriously and using them to reconsider how they might conceive of these events in the future, and how to use them as a teaching moment for the student-organizers involved in this year's planning.  The damage, however, has been done.  Just today my daughter received pink and blue fliers in her mailbox at 4K, inviting girls to dance and boys to be challenged.  The conversation on how to address this is difficult and necessary, and I'm happy to know I'll have a say in it.

I want to preface this post with a big caveat though:  we love our public schools and really have no major problems with our school district or its administrators, which is why I found this message all the more jarring, disturbing and unacceptable. I am not sharing our concerns here to attack the coordinators of this event or the district, but to raise a very important concern about how important it is that we hold ourselves accountable, and to a very high standard, for not reproducing stereotypes and gender discrimination that negatively impact our children and our community.  

To those who would argue that these are "innocent" events and no harm is intended, I'd like to point out that this message comes on the heels of our governor quietly signing away the Equal Pay Act, and a Wisconsin Senator publicly stating that the reason women make less money than men is that "money is more important for men."  Women in Wisconsin make 78 cents for every dollar men make.  Our schools should be doing all they can to help prevent this gap from widening as they prepare our daughters for the workplace.  Instead, the district is promoting "fun" and "harmless" events that seem in clear violation of its own non-discrimination policy, as well as State and Federal anti-discrimination law.

I encourage local parents who feel the same to share their own thoughts with the district administrator, Dr. Tim Culver. And I encourage parents elsewhere to look careful at the materials they receive from their schools and hold them to a high standard.  I hope that sharing the letter my husband and I sent prompts discussion, but more importantly that it encourages more parents to stand up and say that it's not acceptable, even if we have the best of intentions, to send messages to our daughters that they cannot compete intellectually with our sons.  I do not doubt that this message was sent "accidentally" - but that does not mean it was not sent, and the damage has been done.  If we want to change this, we have to start by voicing our concerns.  I hope you will share yours. Here are ours:

 9 April 2012
Dear Sun Prairie Area School District Administrators,

We are writing because we received an announcement from the Sun Prairie School District today inviting us to participate in two events, and we have very serious concerns about these events and the way they are presented to parents and children that we would like to share with you.

Let us say first that we appreciate the efforts of the District to organize fun events that bring the community together, encourage participation of families, and provide affordable activities for students to attend.  We are active members at our neighborhood school and always look forward to participating in these events. We also know that a lot of time and effort goes into planning them, and we are grateful to have such a dedicated and caring staff in our district.

We do not understand, however, why these two specific events are designed and coordinated around gender stereotypes and gender discrimination which seem at odds with the District's policy and platform of inclusive neighborhood schools.  According to the District's non-discrimination policy, which is the first thing we see in our Elementary School Handbook, "No student may be discriminated against in any school programs, activities or in facilities usage because of the student’s sex, color, religion, profession or demonstration of belief or non-belief, race, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status, homelessness status, sexual orientation or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability. Harassment is a form of discrimination and shall not be tolerated in the district. It is the responsibility of administrators, staff members and all students to ensure that student discrimination or harassment does not occur. (SPASD Policy JB)."  It is unclear to us how these gender-restricted events do not violate this policy.

Our daughter will not be attending the "Father-Daughter Dance" because we do not think this is an appropriate or necessary way to bring parents and children together for a school-related event. If you're going to leave education out of it altogether, why not have a Family Dance where mothers, fathers, sons and daughters could all participate and enjoy a fun and fancy event together? We understand and respect that Disney princesses are very popular, but our family chooses to try to avoid these highly unrealistic and offensive stereotypes and support a nurturing environment where our daughter can grow up to be more than a "princess" whose main objective in life is to marry a handsome prince. We would expect (and even demand) that her school would be the one place we could count on to help us encourage her to have higher aspirations as well. Instead, she is encouraged to "bring a camera."

Even more disturbing, however, is the juxtaposition of this event with the "Mother/Son Challenge," which sounds infinitely more fun, interesting and engaging for kids of any gender. For this event, boys are encouraged to bring their moms (or a "favorite adult") and use their brains to solve puzzles that allow them to complete a passport, win prizes and have fun.  Both our son AND our daughter would love to do this, just as our son, minus the "Disney Princess" elements, would love to attend a family dance. But what kind of message does it send to our kids and our community that while the girls are twirling about and getting their photos taken with the Disney Princesses, boys are completing problems and exploring the high school? By pairing these events together in such a way, you are sending this message. And we do not accept it.

$10 will buy our daughter a corsage, or it can buy our son a passport.   We'll take the passport for both of them, please, and we hope that the District will carefully consider the lasting and dangerous implications of organizing events around dated stereotypes and gender biases.  Our district claims to have a policy that does not discriminate on the basis of gender, but these events not only discriminate on that basis, they actually teach our kids to discriminate on that basis, and solidify tired, outdated stereotypes that have no place at all in our schools, much less our century.

We hope that you will take our concerns seriously, and pass them on to others who may be involved in planning such events.  These stereotypes are damaging enough in themselves, but compounded even further when one considers how many kids in our schools live in single-parent homes or have non-traditional families and are therefore automatically excluded or alienated from such events. We are confident that many other parents share our point of view and would rather have the District promote and organize events for the entire family than events that encourage discrimination and reinforce dangerous and damaging stereotypes.

Yours sincerely,
The Bourenane Family

Dear Parents and Guardians of Boys & Girls in Grades 4K - 5,

Reservations are now being taken for the Annual Father-Daughter Dance to be held Saturday,  April 21st, 2012 from 5:30 -7:30 pm.  The "Disney Princesses" will again be at the dance, so make sure you bring your cameras!!  Tickets are  $10.00 in advance which includes one child. $2.00 for each additional child – this includes a raffle ticket, snacks, drinks, & a corsage for each girl.  Information and the RSVP form is available on the district website.

PLUS, this year there's a special event for moms and sons, too with the Mother-Son Challenge Day.   This will also be held Saturday, April 21st, but in the morning from 9-11:30 am.
Boys in grades 4K – 5 are invited to a day of fun with their mom or favorite adult.  The child/adult team will travel to different parts of Sun Prairie High School solving problems and completing puzzles. With each completed station, the team receives a stamp on their passport and will be entered to win prizes! 

Tickets for the Mother-Son Challenge are also $10.00 in advance which includes one child. $2.00 for each additional child – – this includes a raffle ticket, snacks, drinks, & a flag for each team.   Information and the RSVP form is also available on the district website. The link for the Mother-Son Challenge is here .

Thank you and we hope you can attend one of these great events!

No comments:

Post a Comment