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Board refines list of groups that can send home fliers

by Sean R. Sedam
Staff Writer
Aug. 4, 2004

PTA groups, child care providers who use school buildings, nonprofit sports leagues and county- or city-sponsored activities will be allowed to send informational fliers home with students under a policy passed
Thursday by the county school board.

Other organizations still will be able to distribute information at school events such as Back to School Nights.

The school board received almost 500 public comments -- what board members called an unprecedented response -- after it tentatively approved the policy in January. Many of the comments appeared to be part of coordinated efforts by groups such as the Boy Scouts of America. Officials from the Boy Scouts' area council said they were disappointed with the board's decision to leave the group out of the flier policy.

"Boy Scouts cannot sustain its membership if the board changes the policy," Stephen J. Robillard, vice chairman for membership with the Black Hill District of the Scouts' National Capital Area Council, said in written testimony to the board. "Limiting flyers to the government, PTAs, and on-campus day care would cut off the primary means that nonprofit community organizations like the Boy Scouts have to communicate with parents."

Under the new policy, fliers advertising educational services, cultural activities sponsored by nonprofits, activities promoting student health or safety or licensed day care providers also may be displayed in schools with approval of the deputy superintendent, chief operating officer or a community superintendent.

But displays are not a reasonable way to get information home from elementary schools, which distribute most of the school system's take-home fliers, Robillard said.

"We cannot realistically count on 7- and 8-year-olds to routinely seek out and copy information on time and place of parent meetings from a display located somewhere on their elementary school campus," he said.

Board Vice President Patricia B. O'Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda agreed.

O'Neill said an elementary school principal told her that students do not have time to search displays for information.

"They're supposed to be getting on the bus in the afternoon," O'Neill said the principal told her. "They're not supposed to be picking up fliers."

The board approved O'Neill's proposed addition to the policy, allowing nonprofit sports leagues to send fliers home.

O'Neill said she wanted to add sports leagues to the list because the exercise they provide is one way of promoting a healthy lifestyle. The board has tried to fight childhood obesity earlier this year by changing its policy on school vending machines, limiting their hours of operation and pushing for healthy snacks.

After the 7-1 vote approving the policy on Thursday night, Matthew J. Budz, assistant director of field service for the regional council of Boy Scouts of America, said he respected the board's decision, but wondered why sports leagues were singled out for exemption from the flier ban.

"It is our mission to make kids good citizens," he said, adding that Scouts also engage in a variety of activities that promote physical fitness, from canoeing to hiking. "... If they want to question our ability to match up with their issue of obesity, I can't think of any other organization that has the ability of teaching fitness skills that
last a lifetime."

Board members said that while they would have liked to allow other nonprofits, such as cultural groups, to continue to send fliers home, a court decision forced their hand. As a result, the board decided to limit nonprofits' use of the "backpack" forum to nonprofit leagues whose primary mission is to provide athletic competition.

In July, a three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled that the school system had unfairly discriminated against a Christian organization by refusing to distribute its fliers.

Last week the court denied the board's request for the full court to review the panel's decision. The board has decided not to appeal that decision.

"Since the board amended its policy to limit the forum, I think it's probably moot in any event," said Judith S. Bresler, the attorney representing the school system in the case.

On Monday, Budz sent a letter asking Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to rescind the new policy, arguing that it violates the federal Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act.

That law says that no public school, local or state educational agency that receives federal aid may discriminate against the Boy Scouts, according to the letter.

The school system "cannot treat the Boy Scouts differently in any way, even if claiming to act in accordance with school board policy," he wrote.

"All we're asking for is equal access," Budz said Tuesday.

Asked if the group's protest included legal action, Budz said, "We're weighing all of our options."

On Thursday night, Walter N. Lange (Dist. 2) of North Potomac cast the lone vote against the policy. He wanted to give all nonprofits access to students' backpacks, a proposal rejected by the other board members.

Charles Haughey (At large) of Rockville said he, too, would prefer to allow all groups to send fliers home, but said that as a member of the board's policy committee, he saw that such an approach was not feasible.

"I found this to be the only way for us to deal with the decision of the court that says if we decide to distribute something, we must distribute everything," he said.

Later, Haughey said: "It's not by our choice that we're in this position tonight."

Another reason for changing the policy, board members said, was to ease the burden on school staff, which often relied on volunteers to organize the hundreds of fliers schools receive each year, and on students.

"We could create a situation where kids are pack mules and bringing home reams of papers," O'Neill said. "And that's a problem."

The board also wanted to head off any attempts at using the schools to distribute inappropriate material.

"We could get a hate organization that could be a [nonprofit] and they could advertise anything," said Gabriel Romero (Dist. 1) of Montgomery Village. "That would be a big concern for me."

In practice, the new policy might not be so bad, said board President Sharon W. Cox (At large) of Germantown.

"I think we'll see that it's perhaps not as draconian as we fear," she said.




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