An Ohio school district has acknowledged that an assistant principal's email directing teachers to encourage students to write letters to city council members in support of a local pro-LGBT non-discrimination proposal was "not appropriate."
On Thursday, Hilliard City Schools issued a statement after Hilliard Davidson High School Assistant Principal Kristen Clausen sparked controversy for sending an email to school staff last Tuesday that drew the ire of some teachers and a Christian conservative organization.
In the e-mail, Clausen announced that the school would be running an adjusted bell schedule to allow time to recognize Black History Month “on the front end of our 3rd period classes.”
The administrator at the Columbus-area school of nearly 2,000 students ordered the staff to follow a specific agenda during “that 22 minute allotted block of time.”
Clausen told teachers to tell students about an anti-discrimination bill crafted by two Hilliard City Council members along with a student at Hilliard Davidson High School. The city council members seek to “expand existing anti-discrimination laws so that our city can protect people who are from communities related to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, disability, marital status and pregnancy because our current law in Hilliard does not include community members related to those classes.”
“Now, we need YOU. We need YOU to share with our elected officials in the form of a hard-copy letter why expanding the anti-discrimination legislation is necessary,” the assistant principal wrote. “If you have experienced discrimination because of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, disability, marital status and pregnancy, please share your experiences as well so we can help the people who serve us understand why we need legislation that protects all people. There is a box where you can turn in your letter in the main office.”
The email further instructed teachers to let students know that if they are interested in writing a letter to city council members in support of the proposal, “they can do so and drop them off in the Main Office either in the designated box or to Mrs. Smith no later than next Wednesday, 2/24 as we will be in remote learning next Thursday and Friday.”
Leading the charge against Clausen’s e-mail was the social conservative activist organization Center for Christian Virtue, which warned on its website that the anti-discrimination ordinance promoted by the assistant principal’s email has controversial provisions.
CCV President Aaron Baer argues that “the ordinance would require homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters to allow men to bathe and bunk with women.”
He said it “would also require businesses and schools to allow men in women’s locker rooms or showers.” Baer elaborated on his concerns with the legislation in an interview with The Christian Post.
Baer contends that the ordinance would create situations “where a private business owner could be forced to celebrate a religious ceremony that violates his conscience or her conscience” or “where a city employee could be fired merely for writing a Bible study that affirms a Christian perspective on marriage and sexuality.”
“For Hilliard public schools to turn students into lobbyists is bad enough,” he said in a statement. “But to pressure students to lobby for something as dangerous and controversial as a Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity law is wholly unacceptable.”
The activist described Clausen’s e-mail as “an unprecedented violation of the public trust.” He explained that “a number of teachers” who received the email reached out to his organization “because they were afraid of intimidation and bullying from the administration.”
“Whether or not you agree with this bad sexual orientation and gender identity law, this is still a … unprecedented request and an unethical request,” Baer said. “How we got this first and foremost was from the teachers.”
In response to the criticism, Hilliard City Schools issued a statement stating that the assistant principal’s e-mail violated school district policy.
“The Hilliard City Schools Board of Education and administration has been clear on their support of diversity and inclusion of all students and supports our students’ personal involvement in the political process as they choose,” Director of Communications Stacie Raterman shared in a statement with local media. “However, board policy sets clear expectations that literature promoting or opposing political figures, candidates or issues, not be distributed in the school setting.”
Raterman acknowledged that “students were not required to write letters in support of a political issue” but stated that “any distribution of political literature to our students was not appropriate and should not have occurred.”
“We have discussed this with all involved and set new guidelines to assure this type of situation does not occur,” the statement added.
While Baer is grateful for the school board’s corrective action, he maintained that it was “a fundamental failure and breach of trust that enabled a communication like the original email to go out.”
He added that it is “a great responsibility public schools are entrusted with to sharpen young minds.”
“[T]o abuse that power by forcing dangerous political agendas on students is wholly unacceptable,” he asserted.
However, he expressed gratitude for “the strong community response to this disastrous email from the Hilliard Administration.”
“Because so many citizens and families rose up, your voice was heard, and teachers and students were spared from an unacceptable bullying and intimidation campaign,” he stated.
Baer told CP that some of the teachers had “not read the scripts yet.”
“Our organization is a pro-life organization. We lobbied hard for the Heartbeat Bill. If a public school would have pressured students to lobby for the Heartbeat Bill, I would have said that’s wrong. That is not what taxpayer dollars should be used” for, he said.
“If they’re a private school, that’s a whole other ballgame,” Baer added. “But for a public school to do this and use taxpayer dollars is wrong.”
In addition to pushing for students to write letters advocating for the anti-discrimination legislation’s passage, Clausen ordered teachers to show a three-minute video promoting the effort.
“We are at the crossroads of a great change in our country, in our state and our community,” the narrator, a student at Hilliard Davidson High School, said as a picture of the Women’s March San Francisco appeared on the screen.
“Before us, there is a choice that every single member of our community has to make. Do we choose justice for all or justice for the few? Do we choose to look away from discrimination or do we choose to stand up and proudly carry the banner of anti-discrimination?” the student asked.
As the narrator spoke, additional pictures of people engaged in social justice activism appeared on screen, followed by video footage of demonstrations in Hilliard. The narrator was later introduced as the student Clausen touted in her letter to school staff members earlier this week.
“The Hilliard City Council will propose an anti-discrimination law. This law will benefit all people who live in the city of Hilliard. They need us, the students of Hilliard City Schools, to help persuade other council members to pass this law,” the student said in the video.
He urged students to “write and address a letter to the Hilliard City Council documenting your experiences with discrimination in this town.” He stressed: “If you don’t have any, write one anyways. Share why you believe that this bill will be great for our community.”
Baer told CP that the Hilliard City Schools has a history of “pushing a political agenda in the classroom,” especially related to LGBT issues.
“Last year, Ohio passed a bill we backed called the Student Religious Liberty Act, that was in response to students,” he recalled. “One of the stories that we had was students in this district being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.”
Councilmember Omar Tarazi also pushed back against the attempt to use students to lobby for the proposed policy, which has not yet been introduced as a bill.
"However, if City Council members coordinated with the school administration to order a student letter-writing campaign, with taxpayer resources, in support of their 19-page draft law that nobody has read yet, then that would be completely irresponsible and unacceptable," he told ThisWeek Community News. "It is particularly unfortunate because it was done under the manipulative pretense of extending legal protections for groups in Hilliard for the first time when they already have protections in Hilliard under federal and state law and by (our) charter."