'Tolerance Week' at RBHS walks political tightrope

School board member: 'It's left wing. That's what it is'

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By Bob Skolnik

Contributing Reporter

Last week was Tolerance Week at Riverside-Brookfield High School, and it spurred some lively discussion among members of the District 208 Board of Education.

Sponsored by the student club Association of Students for Tolerance, the first Tolerance Week was held two years ago. The idea came from Molly Cunningham, then a senior, as a way to promote tolerance and bring publicity to the club.

It was timed to coincide with the United Nations International Day of Tolerance, which was Nov. 16.

At RBHS last week each day had a theme. Monday was Gender Equality Day, Tuesday was LGBT Pride Day, Wednesday was Environmental Awareness Day, Thursday (Nov. 16) was International Day of Tolerance, and Friday was Minority Empowerment Day. 

Students were encouraged to wear different-colored clothing to mark each day and throughout the week a screen in the cafeteria showed TED Talks relating to the day's theme.

"I think we hoped to achieve bringing a sense of positivity and unity to RB," said RBHS senior Tosin Olowu, president of AST. "The most important thing was bringing a sense of tolerance and awareness of certain issues."

On Nov. 9, Assistant Principal for Student Affairs Dave Mannon sent a letter to parents explaining the ideas behind Tolerance Week and gave an outline of the activities. But, after reading Mannon's letter, two school board members expressed concern about Tolerance Week at the Nov. 14 school board meeting. 

"I think most people would agree that some of these agenda items are controversial,"board member John Keen said. "The way this is presented now, it's left wing. That's what this is."

Board member Laura Hruska echoed Keen's concerns, saying the week's themes were political and possibly divisive.

"When schools start to have activities that are very political, and pick certain ones out of the gambit out of all the ones that could be picked, I felt like, it just didn't have a place here," Hruska said. "It didn't sing to my soul."

But board member Ramona Towner strongly supported Tolerance Week, saying it promoted understanding and celebrated differences within the RBHS community.

"I think it's amazing," Towner said. "I think that hate comes from fear and fear comes from ignorance and ignorance is what we do not want to breed."

Towner even brought President Donald Trump into the equation, criticizing the way he bullies people on social media. That drew a response from Keen, who said those who support Trump shouldn't be made to feel uncomfortable.

"Not everyone thinks President Trump is a bad person," Keen said. "Any child coming to this school should be comfortable with how he feels about the president and not be unduly influenced by, what he considers say, an administrative or board position."

Keen ultimately seemed mostly mollified that Tolerance Week was a student-led activity. He said that he wanted to make sure that all student groups had a chance to participate.

"As long as this is student driven and it's not driven by someone who's a part of these clubs or someone who has an agenda or pushing an ideology, I think we have to accept it," Keen said.

Chris Robling, a prominent conservative Republican commentator and the father of a RBHS senior and two RBHS graduates, said that it seemed to him that Tolerance Week had clear ideological overtones.

"It's a blatantly ideological activity which sadly practiced intolerance of any divergent views," Robling said. "Their substance is entirely one sided and biased and exclusionary towards divergent views." 

Vaughn Hilpp is a RBHS senior who describes his political views as fiscally conservative and socially libertarian. He is not a member of AST but often goes to AST's monthly discussions.

Hilpp said that he did not have major issues with Tolerance Week.

"I think at its core I think it has really good values and goals," Hilpp said.

But there was one thing that puzzled him and some of his friends. 

"We wondered, 'What does environmental awareness really have to do with tolerance?'" Hilpp said. "We kind of came to the consensus that it doesn't really have anything to do with tolerance."

Olowu said environmental awareness was made part of Tolerance Week because it was a passion of one of AST's vice-presidents and because it's an important issue.

"It didn't correlate too much with the rest of the social issues, like racism and classism and homophobia, but it's still something that I think should be talked about especially by kids who are going to grow up and have the power to change it in their homes one day," Olowu said.

Hilpp said that most of the members of AST have a clear left of center political orientation, but Olowu said that AST tried to make Tolerance Week non-controversial.

"We could have done this a lot more political than we did," Olowu said. "I feel like we picked very cookie-cutter ways to go about things, just because our administration is known to be so scared of being too controversial or being too political."

Keen said that it's important that the school be a welcoming and comfortable place to all students, regardless of their political views.

"I think that we just have to make that clear to our community because everyone in this community has to trust this high school," Keen said. "We're not pushing any ideology."

This story has been changed to clarify that John Keen is not the president of the District 208 school board.

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David Hilpp from Brookfield and Riverside  

Posted: November 27th, 2017 1:15 PM

I am a longtime Riverside and Brookfield resident. This district is where I go to church, coach Little League and rec. soccer, been a Cub Scout asst. Den leader, gone to Easter egg hunt at the Big Ball Field and help with Memorial Day observances at Guthrie Park, have been to Ivins Funeral Home too many times and also have been to Dist. 96 and 208 School Board way too many times. That being said, I know a lot of the students, families and friends here and I think every classroom is a safe space and the almost every home in the district is a safe space; full of tolerance whether there is a sign outside or not. I also will say for the record that every Dist. 208 board member is decent and accepting and any concerns are not tied to intolerance, just how time and energy is spent during the preciously little time in the school year. Discloser: My son Vaughn was interviewed for this story.

Lisa Kay  

Posted: November 24th, 2017 1:10 PM

Jay Aldrich, I believe you are misinformed as to what happens on the Day of Silence. No one is pressured into being silent. You might do well to consider the kids who are put into uncomfortable situations EVERY SINGLE DAY simply by showing up at school as a member of the LGBT community or as a minority student, etc. The message is to respect people and the environment, and Keen is opposed? Not surprising, just disappointing.

Dan Moon from Riverside  

Posted: November 24th, 2017 9:08 AM

It seems what Mr. Keen was trying to say in his remarks was precisely what Tolerance Week is, or should be, all about. Without getting into the merits and miscues of the current administration, which there have been huge helpings of both, a one-sided salvo is an inappropriate attack and a distraction from the mission of the program. But, moreover, Mr. Keen is correct in questioning the toxicity of political statements in the board forum, and the hostile effect it has on those with different views.

Lindsay Hunter Morrison  

Posted: November 22nd, 2017 10:21 AM

See the recent study out of Harvard about LGBTQ Americans below. It quantifies how LGBTQ Americans or a family member have experienced violence (51%) and/or slurs (57%), harassment (57%) and sexual harassment (51%) because of their orientation or gender identity. And it's much worse for LGBTQ people of color. The comments from some RBHS board members and on this article, show that some in this community haven't even figured out TOLERANCE for people who are different than they are. Let alone respect or appreciation. It's time for the community inside and outside RBHS to get comfortable with equality in federal and state laws, in school board code, in the RBHS Mission Statement, and common decency. And for the entire school board to get comfortable upholding the school board code they committed to uphold. https://www.npr.org/2017/11/21/565327959/poll-majority-of-lgbtq-americans-report-harassment-violence-based-on-identity

Jay Aldrich  

Posted: November 22nd, 2017 9:00 AM

Mr. Keen stay strong. The tightrope is the difference between tolerating something and being coerced into approving something or participating in something that makes one uncomfortable. The devil is in the details here. I haven't seen the outline of the activities but I would bet that the tone was just right of Left on the political scale. I would also bet that there were students who were put in uncomfortable situations. On the "Day of Silence" for example students who tolerate, but nevertheless hold traditional views on sexuality, are pressured into being silent that day. Situations like these are not right.

Ken Knasiak  

Posted: November 22nd, 2017 8:12 AM

Well, this article certainly goes a long way in informing me on whom I will be voting for the next time this board stands for re-election.

Carla P. Riseman  

Posted: November 22nd, 2017 3:03 AM

I think it's bizarre and very telling that Keen's response to a week promoting tolerance of gender equality, LGBT people, minoroties and people who are concerned about environmental issues is, "Not everyone thinks President Trump is a bad person." He is essentially saying on the record if you are for gender equality, LGBT people, minorities and the environment, you are against President Trump because Trump is not for these things. Keen isn't wrong on this point?"Trump clearly is anti-woman/LGBT/minority/environment, it's just weird and sad to see a school board official point this out and be on the side that's agains basic human rights. The only people I see making this political are the people who are in opposition to it. There should be nothing partisan about gender equality, LGBT rights, minority empowerment and environmental advocacy, but here we are with local officials plainly telling us conservatives are against these things. Remember that at the polls.

Jinnie Hoggarth from Brookfield  

Posted: November 21st, 2017 8:01 PM

It looks like Tolerance Week and its related focus topics are directly in line with the School Board Policy, Section 6:10 Educational Philosophy and Objectives. Kudos to the students who can turn these words into action.

CJ Evans  

Posted: November 21st, 2017 6:28 PM

I can't for the life of me see a controversy in the topic of gender equality, unless one does not agree that women should be treated as equal to men. I can't for the life of me see a controversy in LGBTQ Pride, unless one feels the need to degrade another's sexuality. I can't for the life of me see a controversy in promoting World Tolerance, unless one believes bigotry, racism and hatred haven't been given a platform. And I can't for the life of me see a controversy in encouraging minority empowerment, unless one feels that white power is being threatened by it. These are not political issues. These are basic human rights issues. It is extremely disappointing to see school board members dismissing their importance.

Donna Verlotta Schaefer from McHenry, IL  

Posted: November 21st, 2017 6:27 PM

I'm proud to say I'm an alumni (72). It was because I had some teachers who inspired us to work to protect the environment and to engage in non-partisan issues that I spent 26 years as an elected official in McHenry County, as a county board member and Township Supervisor. I am happy that that legacy of empowering students to make a difference in their communities continues today.

Patrick Calby  

Posted: November 21st, 2017 5:57 PM

This is a big improvement over kids fighting and being expelled for graffiti on the bathroom walls. Definitely a positive presentation of diversity and acceptance. It is clearly educational. And yes, the environment is an important part of it. A lot of "environmental friendly" people have zero concept of how to recycle. This is more sociological than political and I congratulate the students for their presentation.

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