Children and Choice

I cannot recall the last time I was this conflicted as an attorney, over our need to balance constitutional rights in this country. In this case, the issue is freedom of speech, and the situation has the potential to both help and hurt our kids.

I’ve just returned from Gowana Middle School, in New York’s Shenendehowa School District. I interviewed students who attempted to speak out against abortion, as part of the national day of silent protest organized by Stand True - Christ Centered Pro-life.

Students ranging from ages 13 to 16 prepared pamphlets, made descriptive T-shirts, and placed duct tape, with the word LIFE written on it, over their mouths.

The pamphlets and T-shirts were made at their homes, on their own time, and with their own money. They’ve since received both support and representation by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a not-for-profit organization, with a mission to “defend the right to hear and speak the truth through strategy, training, funding and litigation.”

On the school bus and at school, the students silently distributed their pro-life brochures giving them out to any interested middle school student — they range in age from 10-year-old 6th graders to 13-year-old 8th graders. The pamphlets detail how many fetuses are aborted each year. The student-made pamphlet goes on to say that these “Americans” are not only silenced, but also killed.

After becoming aware of the protest, Principal Jill Bush ordered the kids to turn their T-shirts inside out, and announced over the school’s PA system that those with a brochure had to dispose of it. One student’s mother had called the district’s office ahead of time, but the principal claims she did not receive advance notice of the protest.

Becky Carrubba, a student at Gowana, said that she was told she was “too young to believe in these type of things.” She stood her ground and said that the principal shouldn’t say what 8th graders could and could not believe in or for that matter what they should talk about. “I just want people to know that it is wrong to kill a baby, because it is killing, and I think it’s good for them to know at an early age” she told me.

A student, known as M.G. in court papers, brought the Gowana controversy to court, and was represented by a high-caliber First Amendment attorney, Tom Marcelle, hired by the ADF. The complaint claims the 13-year-old wanted to inform other students about Roe vs. Wade, and the effects that the controversial abortion ruling has on students and their generation.

Marcelle insists the kids at Gowana Middle School were engaging the exercise of their First Amendment freedom. In our interview he said “students don’t shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, and just because we agree or disagree with particular speech doesn’t give the principal the right to say you can’t talk about it.”

The case was resolved on Friday, a federal judge signing off on a settlement M.G. and the other students came to with the school district. M.G. will be allowed to wear his pro-life T-shirt and distribute leaflets in the future.

Dr. L. Oliver Robinson, the Superintendent of the Shenendehowa School District, said the children’s diversity had to be recognized, in terms of maturity level and understanding. “Comments like ‘dead babies’ can have a major impact on different kids’ perspectives and we have to be understanding of that. That is part of our responsibility as a school.”

Dr. Robinson then asked how schools can find a certain balance, so people don’t feel like their civil liberties are being stepped on … all while trying to ensure decorum of a school environment, that is conducive to learning. I was impressed by his willingness to rethink the school’s longstanding course curriculum taking into account that maybe these days our kids get an expanded view of the world at an earlier age. I also appreciated as a parent and legal professional his view that allowing that freedom of speech could be done in an age appropriate and fair way.

Students in Maryland and Pennsylvania showed up at their schools prepared for a similar silent protest and like those at Gowana, their “expression” was stopped. Eventually, and out of court, those school districts lifted the school’s ban and under an agreement made with the students, allowed them to hand out pro-life pamphlets.

In this day and age, “pro-life” and “pro-choice” discussions may in fact be appropriate in middle school (these are, I suppose, new and different times thanks mostly to the internet). But like Superintendent Robinson, how do we balance the need for free expression and the protection of a younger child not ready for too detailed an explanation?

And I’m also conflicted about this — not so much now as an attorney, but as a Mom - Wasn’t abstinence supposed to be the required course curriculum for our kids, at least until they get into high school?

Bottom line, how do we balance the need for 13-year-olds — who feel so passionately about their pro-life message that they seek the backing of the ADF — to ensure their right to tell their peers … even the younger ones and the rights of those younger kids?

What about that 10-year-old, who may be hearing about the “death of a fetus” for the first time … and who may also have a pregnant Mom at home?

There are no easy answers here. I’d like to hear what you think. There will surely be more teens who want to express the pro-life message — maybe at your child’s school. What should the school’s role in this be … and what about you and other parents?

FOX Fan Responses to Children and Choice:

“I am a 55-year-old dad of three now grown children. My wife and I were actively involved in prayer against abortion clinics. In 1985, my eldest daughter was hearing about abortion in grammar school. We eventually home schooled all of our children, because we wanted them to know of abstinence and our religious beliefs, without having them constantly contradicted at school. Most 10-year-olds probably know about abortion. A 12-year-old cannot get an aspirin at school, but if they wind up pregnant, the school nurse can take them to an abortion clinic to take care of the problem. I promise you that the other students are well aware of their options. Phyllis Schafly wrote ‘Child Abuse in the Classsroom,’ back in the early eighties. The problem is more serious now than then. Get a copy for a very informative read. Sadly, our children know FAR too much about sex, abortion, drugs, homosexuality, and who knows what else. Our society seems bound and determined to expose their young minds to every horror known to man. I am glad my children are grown, but have serious doubts about how the grandchildren will fair in this promiscuous society. I pray for the United States of America. Free speech seems to cost more and more.” — Richard

“I think that it is a privilege for children and young adults to go to school in this country. They go to school for one reason and that is to learn. If schools would adopt a uniform dress code and have more discipline, We would not be having these problems of offending someone by wearing a controversial t-shirt. Imagine what our teachers could teach if they didn’t have all these other problems to deal with. Kids have plenty of time away from school to show there individuality.” — Bob (Washington)

“I agree that it would be rough for younger ones to hear the terms ‘dead babies’ and the like. But consider this. If they aren’t already , they will be hearing in just a year or two, from other peers that it is ok to abort an unborn human being. If the pro-life peers are trying to save lives, wouldn’t it be better to have the younger ones hear of this first from those who respect life and not from those who disregard it?” — Laura

“I am a high school counselor, and have had to deal with similar issues with many students. I think the reason this is becoming such a big issue, is that it is an ugly truth … which is difficult for people to digest. If students were protesting the Iraq war, or arpatheid, or saving trees/recycling paper, we would not hear a word about it … it would be tolerated and looked at as a healthy practice of free speech. But, the protesting of abortion, and the facts that support the beliefs of the pro-life students are hard to hear and thus, create an uproar from administrators who try to walk on the fence rather than jumping on one side or another. The facts about abortion are hard, they are sad, and they are tragic. Just because something is difficult to explain, or worse, difficult to defend, does that mean it should not be talked about in schools? It seems to me that those who chant words like ‘tolerance, and free speech’ are the first to want to wipe it away when it goes against their beliefs. If the students were conducting their protest in a manner that was disruptive to other students and interfering with the learning environment, then it should not be allowed, If, however, the students were organized and conducted their protest in a respectful manner, as in this case, then I see no reason why it should not be allowed.” — Terri

“I find this so interesting that this is even up for debate. I am currently 25 and when I was in the 8th grade, we had an official 8th grade debate about abortion. Pro-life vs. Pro-choice. Keep in mind, that we didn’t use the word fetus back then. We, rightfully, called it a baby. Obviously, I was on the Pro-life team. Children, teens and adults alike are passionate about what they believe in and it’s wrong of us to assume that they don’t have enough knowledge to spout such passion. I understand what you are saying about the dead babies comment, but considering the seriousness of the issue and the terribly young age that children are having sex now, they need to hear this message. They need to be aware of the information out there so they can put their decisions in a better perspective. Oh, and they claim that they’re teach abstinence in school but I know that much of it hasn’t changed since when I was in the 8th grade. We spent four days discussing the sexually transmitted diseases and all of the wonderful ways that you can practice safe sex and then we spent the last 10 minutes of the 5th day mentioning (as a side note) that it’s probably a better idea to not have sex. This is all the more reason why these kind of discussions are a good thing. God bless the pre-teen or teen who in only now hearing the message of abortion and it’s consequences for the first time. Even when I was young I knew about abortion before I got to middle school.” — Matt

“As a parent of four, I understand the concerns about age appropriate material, but that arguement falls a little short, considering that these are the same schools that are teaching our middle schoolers about sex education, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, and instructing our kids on the proper use of condoms. If it’s fair for the school to open Pandora’s Box on this issue, then they should be prepared for challenging points of view even if they come from the very students they are trying to indoctrinate into the secular sexual relativism that exists in today’s society. Why is it that these kids can be taught about atrocities in Darfur, or genocide in Serbia in their social studies class, but the abortion mills in our own country get a free pass with the excuse that the material is too sensitive? That is just a cheap cop out in my opinion. If these students have a Pro-Life philosophy, then they should also be allowed to talk about it and the atrocities that are involved in the process of abortion. It used to be that education looked at all points of view on a particular topic and openly discussed oposing viewpoints so that the students could form their own opinions not have their opinions dictated to them.” — Travis (Holmen, WI)

“This issue is a special interest of mine. The only special interest for the most part. I can adapt to most anything but have strong views on abortion. We teach our children that abortion is wrong and shouldn’t be legal. We teach them that those who choose that route suffer more in the long run and need prayers especially since abortion may be the only option they feel they have.
My opinion on what the role of the school should be? Accept all viewpoints or none at all. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Also, schools aren’t parents and it doesn’t take a village. Schools should provide the basics for educating our kids - math, english, science, social studies, the ‘arts’ , the content areas, etc. Parents/ the home should provide the rest.
I disagree with the ‘no easy answers’ you mentioned. It really is very easy in my opinion. Schools should allow all types of groups/special interest clubs/ views, or none at all. Same goes for society. We either accept (not agree with) all or not allow just a few. What’s so hard about having a pro-abortion group and a pro-life group? An alliance of gay/lesbians and an alliance of straight students? A black caucus and a white caucus or an Italian/Irish/German, etc. caucus? We continue to push for segregation by having these type of groups — we’re going from one extreme to the other in trying to correct our past faults. Seriously, it’s Christmas break and Easter break not winter recess and spring break, lol. If we want to change the break schedule then we should make it at a time that isn’t a religious holiday and the reason we had those school breaks to begin with. Thus, in my opinion as a parent, don’t have these various clubs and don’t allow any political/moral/religious/anything views, or allow them all. Given our education system today, I think the pro-life students should be allowed to pass out/wear any tshirts/gear, etc. As for the younger children, they’re hearing a whole lot more than just a death of a baby. And the parents/pregnant mom at home is responsible for explaining all of this to their child, not the school. We’re expecting our schools/government to raise our kids and that’s the downfall of our education system, in my opinion. It doesn’t take a village - it takes a parent. Responsibility, accountability of parents and eventually those two apply to the students.” — Monica

“It is tough. But where is the same concern for the parents of kindergardners that don’t want their children learning about same sex relationships? As usual, the popular opinion seems one sided. Your suggesting we should be worried about 10-13 year olds learning about abortion … well, it is a legal fact in America that women can kill their fetuses. That is the excuse used when parents complain about their kids coming home asking questions about two mommies and two daddies, it is a legal fact, deal with it. Personally, by the time my first son is ready for school, I hope to be able to afford a small Christian school or make the committment with my wife to homeschool. . . that way my parental rights do not get usurped by judges or other authorities whether its freedom of speech or freedom from filth. I’m proud that these kids took a stand for life since so often they are confronted with filth.” — Mick (Peoria, IL)

“Thank you for your well written article about children and choice. I believe the schools did the right thing by allowing students to have their silent protest. Sadly, some junior high children are having abortions. If they’re able to have an abortion (whether by choice or being forced into one) then they’re mature enough to learn what it is. By junior high, I think children have a right to know that babies are being killed. All the better if a child has a pregnant mom at home, she can lovingly tell her children about the precious gift of life (she does not have to explain or give detail of where it came from) and how grateful she is to be able to have a baby. If the mom has a miscarriage she can share her sorrow with her children too. I have four children ages 7, 5, 3 and 7 months. We pray for the souls of the unborn and an end to abortion every night. My 7-year-old knows that an abortion is something a woman does to kill the baby growing in her tummy .. .by the time she is in junior high, I believe she will be ready to learn a little more. It is only by informing children that they will be able to properly form a conscience of right and wrong. ” — Laura (Snohomish, WA)

“Hi Jamie, Interesting views on the pro-choice/pro-life discussions in school. I come at this as a pregnant mom of two young girls (five and two), a trained journalist familiar with the protections of the First Amendment, a former high school English teacher and a former board member at a crisis pregnancy center. There is no question that the Constitution protects the speech that you have described in your column. Yes, there is a role for the public school system to play in terms of making sure that the language used is tempered to an age-appropriate level. It is the middle school equivalent of yelling ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded movie theater. Of course, who decides what is age appropriate? I think that a reasonable person using a reasonable standard would be able to set guidelines that centered around scientific terminology to define the boundaries of the debate. For example, it would be age-appropriate for the fliers to say medically accurate things about the unborn, such as when a heartbeat develops and when brainwaves are detectable. It would not, however, be age-appropriate for those fliers to contain graphic photos of aborted fetuses, terms such as ‘baby-killers,’ or the like.” — Jennifer (Auburn, AL)

“I went to public school through 6th grade and private school from there on. We incorporated the newspaper as a learning tool in my 5th grade year as part of civics and the Constitution. The words of the 5th Amendment ‘no person shall be denied life liberty or property without due process’ lead our class to become unanimously pro-life. The private school I went to taught social justice and encouraged students to be involved in looking out for those less fortunate which we did by volunteering for soup kitchens, we had our own food pantry, and we had a respect life group. As far as this issue, the t-shirts and duct tape can be addressed by having school uniforms, and good civics education and social justice education would provide an outlet for the truth of the pro-life message to be delivered in a less shocking manner.” — Anthony

“As a middle school teacher, I can tell you that (according to the Supreme Court), students are not allowed to distribute pamphlets at the school during class time, but may do so in-between classes, on the bus or after school. I allow for conversation and debate in my classroom, especially about topics like abortion. Why? Because the kids want answers and everyone tells them they’re too young to know about any of it. Then why do I have an 8th grader with a one-year old child? and why are about 1/2 of my students engaging in sexual intercourse and calling it ‘love’? My students feel the need to discuss sensitive topics and be given correct information on both sides. Abstinence? You bet we talk about it! And I have a very vocal small group of students who are planning on staying ‘pure until I get married!’ No one is disrespectful in our debates (I do not allow it, everyone has a valid opinion), and I have found through our conversations that my students want abstinence taught in the schools because their parents either don’t teach them, or they’re not very good role models. (Of course, students can always opt out) It’s a very tough situation nowadays with our students. We do not need political correctness running amok in our schools, and we need to show students both sides of the abortion debate, among other things, and let them be the ones who make their own decision about it, without coercion.Thanks for the great article!” — Amy

“School is a place where children are supposed to be “enlightened” about the world around them so that the learning process can go forward. The problem I had growing up was that there was little relationship between what I was learning and the world outside (quite a shock when reality set in). Nowadays, it appears that everyone has his agenda to push, and wants to be as inclusive as possible. Therefore, middle school children are thrown into the fray so that they’ll be “educated” enough early on to make a difference later in life (in some cases this could be considered brainwashing the child). Since children are impressionable, with no life experience with which to weigh objectives, it would appear that they would be an easy mark whereby desired results would take hold.” — Bob (Lyman, ME)

“Thanks for having the guts to ask the question. It amazes me that it is too traumatic for these children to hear the words ‘dead babies’ at their ‘young age.’ Meanwhile, they are required to attend sex education classes that discuss the same issues under the heading of birth control and safe sex. It appears that what is offensive isn’t the discussion of abortion, it is using language that puts a negative spin on said procedure. I doubt that those who opposed the demonstration also opposed the portrayal of Dakota Fanning’s on screen rape. That would be art and not child abuse. It seems to me that that little girl was subjected to something much more ‘upsetting’ and scarring to her young life than the words ‘dead babies.’ Where is the consistency here? I grow tired of the double standard.” — Mike

“I am a teacher and my purpose here is to let you know that I don’t believe adults should use children as pawns in their metaphorical war on abortion or on any other hot-button social issue. When confronted with overt liberalism in my classroom, I usually restrain the conservative kids and play the Socratic method with the young liberal without derailing too far from the topic of the lesson. These children of whom you wrote, however, are reacting so because they are silenced, have been silenced every day in public education. Liberal teachers and administrators are not shy about their agenda. Ironically, as a conservative, I am the head representative of the teacher’s union in my high school. I’ve sat across from the Superintendent who has taken the opportunity of our meetings, intended to be a discussion about union/administration relations and education, to offer personal comments on our president — not even comments about education. I recall one instance when I arrived for a meeting when she had been looking at the news on her computer.” — Suzie (Lincoln, NE)

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Jamie Colby joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in July 2003 and currently serves as a news correspondent and anchor of "FOX News Live," Sat.- Sun 2 -3 p.m. ET. She anchored coverage of the passing of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI from Rome. You can read her complete bio here.