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Student, outside groups at the tables in U46

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

ELGIN — The bake sale ended pretty quickly — and successfully — when Larkin High School Principal Dr. Jon Tuin bought all the desserts for his staff for Teacher Appreciation Day.

The yearbook club also had sold a “decent amount” of masks they’d decorated to wear to the school’s upcoming masquerade-themed prom, according to junior Giovanna Aguinaga of Elgin.

The club set up both fundraisers during Larkin’s lunch periods Tuesday. They money will go to buy supplies — and maybe more color pages — for the yearbook, said editor Stephanie Martinez, a senior, of Elgin.

Across the lunchroom, her fellow seniors picked up caps and gowns for graduation at another table.

“They pretty much let you do what you want as long as it isn’t too out of the box,” said Aguinaga, 17.

“And it’s school-appropriate,” added Martinez, also 17.

Allowing groups to set up tables in high school lunchrooms is one just one way Elgin School District U46 schools allow students to “express themselves,” according to Tuin.

“We don’t want to stifle their learning and their discovery,” he said.

But there can be a fine line between protecting students’ rights to express themselves and protecting students from being upset, especially when outside groups are involved.

Once, Larkin’s fashion club tried to sell some inappropriate clothing during lunch, Stephanie said. The school put the kibosh on that pretty quickly.

And, she said, “Someone started an atheist table. It started kind of a movement with other religions.”

That was last month, Tuin confirmed. A “handful” of students had asked him for permission to set up a table for “Ask an Atheist a Question Day,” a national event spearheaded by the Secular Student Alliance.

The principal gave them the same parameters he would any other student group: They could set up a table. They could provide information at that table. But they couldn’t approach students in the lunchroom.

Parent complaints

He didn’t hear any complaints about it, he said, until he started getting calls from area newspapers.

Shavon Standack of Elgin told The Courier-News her son and niece, both Larkin students, were so upset by the booth, her husband signed them out of school for the rest of the day.

“They were telling students God is fake, their parents are lying to them,” Standack said. “The students are up there, arguing with them, and the teachers are allowing this to go on.”

Tuin said he spoke to a few students who seemed upset by the table and assured them, “If I can allow you to do the same thing, I have to allow them.”

“We have clubs that set up tables all the time. We have a couple Christian groups. They get to set up a table.”

One group that has received complaints is the counter-recruitment group sponsored by Fox Valley Citizens for Peace & Justice and the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin. That group is allowed to set up informational tables at several U46 high schools.

Federal and Illinois law both require high schools to give military recruiters the same access to schools they give groups whose purpose is to “acquaint students with educational or occupational opportunities available to them.” U46 gives that access to the military, as well as to the counter-recruitment group and many colleges, according to Patrick Broncato, the district’s chief legal officer.

And that’s important, according to Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford of Elgin, who has been a member of the counter-recruitment group for the past three years.

“We’re looking at the military recruiting at our high schools on a regular basis, but at the same time, we’re seeing the military creep into the grade schools and middle schools,” Brumbaugh-Cayford said.

Just a few weeks ago, she said, her 8-year-old son Christopher came home from Washington Elementary School in Elgin with a test he’d taken based on an article about whether women should serve on the front lines of combat. The article was in a weekly newsletter his class reads. It wasn’t the A+ that caught her eye, but the essay question she said she was glad her son wasn’t made to answer.

The question was: “Imagine you are a U.S. soldier serving your country overseas. What might a day at work be like? On a separate piece of paper, write a journal entry that describes your experience.”

“Asking kids to imagine serving overseas … to my mind, is really inappropriate for 8-year-old children,” said Brumbaugh-Cayford, whose father was a conscientious objector to the Korean War as a member of the Church of the Brethren.

Military bashing?

She and other members of the counter-recruitment group spoke to the U46 Board of Education last week after they received written complaints from students at Elgin High School “centered on us bashing the military,” she said.

After students delivered those complaints, Broncato said, “The school then contacted the group and said, ‘We’d like to talk to you about what’s being said to students because we have students who are concerned about what’s being said.’”

The chief legal officer said the group isn’t banned from any U46 schools. But, he said, Elgin High School officials still would like to discuss the complaints with members of the counter-recruitment group.

At Larkin, student editor Martinez said, even after the recent flap over the “Ask An Atheist A Question Day” booth, “there’s really no negative results from it.”

And Aguinaga added, “I think people getting involved is a good thing.”

“I think what people really want is to make sure their kids are protected,” Tuin said. “They want reasonable interactions in the school. They don’t want crazy things going on. I can appreciate that.”

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