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.