Feature

When Zealots Wage War

A Superintendent’s Defense Plan Against an Unwarranted and Spurious Attack by Bruce L. Dennis


Superintendents are no strangers to controversy. We often are called upon to mediate in a variety of disputes, and we are too well aware that our decisions will be unpopular to some of those affected.

In these frequently contentious times, many of us have come to rely more on our ability to resolve conflict than upon virtually any other skill.

Beginning in the spring of 1995, however, I found my school district and myself under virulent attack from two parents who questioned our educational practices, challenged us personally and professionally, and accused us of promoting Satanism in our schools. The entire episode, which regrettably continues, has been a learning experience for me and our entire community. It has tested us in ways that none of us could have imagined.

The Opening Salvo

The Bedford Central School District enrolls 3,360 students, who attend five elementary schools, Fox Lane Middle School for grades 6-8, and Fox Lane High School. We serve the communities of Bedford, Bedford Hills, Mount Kisco, and Pound Ridge—Westchester County suburbs about 40 miles from Manhattan. Our district is ethnically and socio-economically diverse. Some students come from multimillion dollar homes, while a small percentage qualify for free and reduced price lunches. We are a highly regarded, high-performing school district in one of the country’s most affluent counties and long have enjoyed a positive reputation for the quality of our schools.

In late March 1995, I was contacted by two parents who objected to a small number of fourth-grade and middle school students who were involved before and after school in playing Magic: The Gathering®, a trading card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, a firm in Renton, Wash. Magic: The Gathering® is a strategic card game using mathematical principles. In simplest terms, the goal of the game is to cast spells as a means of attacking your opponent in an effort to reduce his "life total" to 0 or less. Your opponent tries to block your attacks and institutes attacks of his or her own.

The game was designed by a Ph.D. in mathematics. Like chess and bridge, it has developed a professional playing circuit, where participants can earn cash prizes. In 1996, the company’s professional tour offered a combined prize purse of $1 million over a series of five tournaments.

The two parents objected to students playing the game on school property. They were accompanied by a child psychiatrist who lived outside our school district and who supported their religious objections to the game. Also present at the meeting were two school board members who were invited by the objecting parents, along with two parents whose children played the game before and after school. One of the mothers ran the voluntary fourth-grade group.

I gave everyone at the meeting a chance to express an opinion. The two complainants argued the game was dangerous because it posed a mental health hazard to young children. While I did not believe the game carried any harm to the participants, I imposed a 30-day moratorium on the game playing during which I submitted the game for review by three independent, highly regarded mental health professionals in our region (but outside the school district), including two child psychiatrists and a child psychologist. Each doctor was provided with a full set of the photographic images contained on the playing cards, provided to me by the game’s producers and a rule book governing the game’s play.

I asked the doctors to answer three questions:

  • Is there anything that is so disturbing or dangerous in the game’s potential impact that the school should not serve as a forum for the game’s play?
  • Do the cards, by virtue of their content, pose a mental health hazard of any kind?
  • Is there a need to restrict voluntary student participation, with parental consent, according to the children’s age or developmental stage?

 

Unexpected Criticism

The response to my imposing a 30-day moratorium was especially interesting. Many parents whose children participated in the game vociferously disapproved of the moratorium. They accused me of selling out to those who would censor and control creative expression and of failing to maintain our schools as "hallmarks of intellectual openness and freedom."

Especially ironic was the criticism leveled at me by personal friends and professional colleagues whose children attended our schools and participated in this activity. My response was that as superintendent I could not fail to take seriously charges that we were engaged in practices that could be harmful to children. Using an analogy to allegations that our drinking water was polluted, I contended that the only prudent course would be to test the water, not blithely argue that it tasted all right so it must be pure.

Despite the criticism to which I was subjected and the irony that it came from people whose essential values I shared, the moratorium and professional review of the game turned out to be some of the wisest decisions I have ever made.

About three weeks later, the reports came back from the mental health professionals. None of them sustained the contentions that the game was harmful to children or should be prohibited on school grounds. Consequently, on April 19, 22 days after the start of the moratorium, I recommended to the board of education that the ban on the game be lifted and that students whose parents rendered informed consent be permitted to resume playing the game.

At the board meeting, the two parents who had originally complained, armed with bibles in hand, urged the board not to permit the game to continue in our schools. The board, to its credit, supported my recommendation and the game activities resumed. Before leaving the board meeting, one of the parents came up to me, thrust her finger in my face, and threatened, "You haven’t heard the last of this. I’m going to bring you down as the superintendent who promoted Satanism in the schools."

Bizarre Actions

As one might expect, these parents did not go away. They formed an organization called the Association Against the Seduction of Children. After being granted permission and paying the standard facility use fee to conduct a meeting in one of our schools, the group invited "experts" from around the nation, many of them clergy who were said to be authorities on Satanism and the occult, to speak about the "horrible damage" the Bedford schools were doing to their children. About 200 people attended the meeting on Sept. 28, 1995, but only a handful were from our school district.

In addition, throughout the fall of 1995, the two parents lodged a full frontal assault against all aspects of our school district curriculum. They went to the television and print media to "expose" district practices to which they took exception. This resulted in television and radio coverage by stations in New York City and news stories in The New York Times, New York Daily News, and virtually all of our local print and broadcast media in Westchester County. On the Sunday before Halloween, I even heard a report on my car radio on the local CBS station that the Bedford Central School District had changed the name of Halloween to "The Day of the Dead." One of the two, in an interview, made this ridiculous assertion, which the radio station promptly reported without seeking any confirmation from school district officials.

The two parents wrote letters to our principals seeking that their children be excluded from certain instructional practices to which they took exception. Their complaints became wide ranging and increasingly bizarre. Their targets included the middle school’s use of "Decision Making: Sixth Grade Students Program," developed by the department of psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and the Community Consultation Board to equip young adolescents with the skills to make good personal choices.

They also challenged the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education program, better known as DARE, which is part of our fifth-grade curriculum to comply with New York State’s required policy of drug and alcohol education. They objected to the study of owl pellets, a research-based science activity that actively engages students in the nature and methods of science by providing opportunities for careful observation and analysis of data and hypothesis formation. The activity is endorsed by science teaching organizations across the country. They attacked various homework assignments and literature selections, including Bridge to Terabithia, a Newberry Medal-winning children’s novel by Katherine Patterson, which also was recognized as a "notable children’s book" by the American Library Association and a "best book" by the School Library Journal, and My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, another Newberry Honor Book and winner of the Hans Christian Andersen International Award.

Internal Toll

Not surprisingly, this high-profile assault on our instructional practices took a toll on our faculty, some of whom began to question their own choice of teaching materials and instructional strategies. I became sufficiently alarmed that I wrote to all of our teachers and principals, urging them to "continue to let your good judgment, in which I have full confidence, guide your instruction." I also cautioned them that "self-censorship is as pernicious as that imposed by others" and to "not allow the actions of a few to polarize us from the parents and community whose children we serve."

Throughout the fall of 1995, I was handling between 30 and 40 phone calls a day on this matter alone. These involved communications with school district counsel, board members, parents, and the news media. In mid-November, in an attempt to put this matter to rest, I convened a superintendent’s colloquium to address the baseless allegations of these two parents and engage community support for our schools’ curriculum and faculty.

Through the efforts of an incredibly dedicated group of parents and students, more than 1,000 people flooded our high school auditorium and student commons, where we accommodated the overflow via closed-circuit television. The outpouring of community support for our schools, its faculty, and me were truly heartwarming. In addition, we received unequivocal support from the interdenominational Northern Westchester Council of Clergy, as well as from all of our local press through their editorials and news coverage.

My favorite commentary, which appeared in The Patent Trader, a newspaper published in Cross River, N.Y., was titled "Satan Scotched Again." The editorial said in part: "In ‘Damn Yankees,’ Satan is portrayed as an aging song-and-dance man, forever trying for his comeback. Well, the old hoofer’s been showing up during the last half year in the Bedford Central School District, and thanks to the wise and able management of Dr. Bruce Dennis and his supportive school board, Satan has been frustrated again ? The sterling reputation of Bedford Central School District was being blackened by silliness. Dr. Dennis and his board did the only thing you can do when there’s a monster under the bed; they shined a flashlight on it. ? More than one speaker asked, ‘Why are we spending such time and energy on this nonsense?’ The answer is, we do not invite our afflictions. Two lost moms with Satan on their minds could have happened anywhere. They happened to have happened in Pound Ridge. Dr. Dennis and his board, by exposing the Devil to the light of reason, made Him shiver and flee. May he stay away long."

Things got quiet for the remainder of the 1995-96 school year, and apart from the occasional curricular objections by these two parents, which I refused to sustain, we didn’t hear much more. But on Oct. 15, 1996, I was served with a summons in a civil action in U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, for 113 alleged violations of the plaintiffs’ children’s 1st and 14th Amendment rights. Because the plaintiffs have not sought financial damages but only injunctive and declaratory relief, our district’s liability carrier has declined coverage. Although we intend to dispute this denial of coverage, we may be subject to hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend our school district on this most recent unwarranted attack.

High Stakes

I believe much is at stake here and not only for Bedford.

A few parents cannot be permitted to derail the curriculum of an entire school district. They must not be allowed to level specious and irresponsible allegations about instructional practices because they have determined that certain aspects of curriculum or pedagogy do not meet with their approval.

The effect on academic freedom and on the schools’ ability to provide children with challenging instruction while addressing their affective and cognitive needs are goals that are well worth fighting for. And fight we will!

Bruce Dennis is superintendent, Bedford Central School District, Bedford, N.Y.


 

Lessons I Learned

Bruce Dennis says he has learned four lessons from the unjustified attacks against him and the school district:

No. 1: Don’t be afraid to stand by your core values.

No. 2: When you’re really right, the support will be there ... but it doesn’t hurt to help that support along.

No. 3: When all else fails, the kids always come through.

No. 4: There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Just hope it’s not another train coming at you.