Listen: South St Paul's school directive on abortion or birth control in the classroom

MPR’s Connie Goldman reports on the controversy that erupted over a directive banning teaching, advising directing, or suggesting of abortion or birth control in the classroom, issued by superintendent of South St Paul's Public School District.

In a further expansion of his directive, Superintendent Ray Powell suggests emphasizing information on traditional sex roles and a critical examination of anything that could be defined as sensitivity training.

Report includes numerous interviews and commentary.


1975 The Minnesota Education Association School Bell Award, Radio Spot News Coverage About Education category


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SPEAKER: Shook up a lot of people to see Walter Cronkite holding up that map of Minnesota with a little dot, and there's South St. Paul where the superintendent said thus and such.

SPEAKER: It was quite a shock to read the newspaper headlines too. South St. Paul's School memo drawers notorious eyes. And superintendent Powell fears indoctrination. We decided to look behind the brief and sensational references, and explore the situation more completely.

Superintendent Ray Powell one morning three weeks ago simply issued his center bulletin number 39. He admits there were no transgressions, complaints, community pressures, or incidents that precipitated his action.

RAY POWELL: So coming back to why it was perhaps a surprise or took everyone by surprise is that there had been no notion of advance indication that such a policy was in the making or such a statement was being considered.

But in terms of these specific two areas of abortion and birth control, and the fact that we took an immediate position of not teaching nor advising or counseling in these areas, which was effective immediately. I imagine is what prompted, of course, all of the so-called surprise. And in some ways perhaps on the part of some, they've indicated astonishment that such a position would be taken so quickly and immediately.

SPEAKER: Could you explain why it was taken so quickly and immediately? And what your convictions are.

RAY POWELL: Yes. I feel today that a school district-- and I'm speaking here of a public school district, a kindergarten 12 public school district. And I wouldn't be about to suggest that this position should apply to say junior colleges or universities.

But in the case of public education and a public school system, I believe that the district can truly take only one position today, that there is only one position that a district can take in the areas of moral and spiritual values.

If we indeed must consider and we should that moral and spiritual values come under the canopy of the inherent, first of all, freedoms that have been guaranteed our citizens and, of course, our parents in communities.

And since that then says that parents and citizens have certain inherent rights in moral and spiritual values, then we must come on to the public school setting and suggest then that the only position we can take is to hold the prime responsibility for that teaching that inculcating that instilling in their children at the family or at the parent level.

And for the district to do anything in the way of teaching or the building of attitudes, that would in any way encroach on or go against or be different than those desired by the parents for their children, then that in my view and from a district point of view could only be termed as denying the inherent rights that parents have in those particular areas.

SPEAKER: Mrs. [? Catherine ?] [? Cream ?] is the chairman of the South St. Paul School Board. Although she had no advance notice that the directive was coming, she and the rest of the board voted in support of it.

SPEAKER: Well, as a parent, I feel that although I might have one view and perhaps a more liberal view with my own children, I do not feel that I could consider and I don't think the school should consider teaching, for instance, abortion and birth control because I feel that is the right and the responsibility of the parent. They have the responsibility for the end result.

SPEAKER: Then the seven people on the school board in this district were behind your superintendent in issuing this decree.

SPEAKER: Well, we voted in his support, I would say last Wednesday evening when we passed a resolution, which put all three matters of abortion and birth control, parental values, and the sensitivity training issues for study all in the hands of the curriculum and instruction committee, a board committee to develop policy and come up with recommendations for the full board.

I would say that we were in strong support of them unanimously. And that the policies or the center bulletins, and what he was saying in them still stand until some sort of official policy comes out of that committee and is passed upon by the full board.

SPEAKER: Superintendent Powell explained his argument for eliminating the discussion of birth control and abortion in the schools, and the attempt to put the teaching of such matters back into the home.

RAY POWELL: There's no way that a staff member can assume the responsibility necessary. When we as a person or when we as a district would advise a student to go in a certain direction, first of all, we immediately have cut off or disregarded or denied or insulted or whatever the parental right of parent. And I don't think we can do that in the first place.

Secondly, if we make-- if we help make or if we cause a student to take such a major decision in his life or her life, that may affect the rest of her life dramatically and greatly. I think the person that helps that person make that decision must stand in position to help assume the responsibility for it.

And a school staff person nor a district can do that. In effect, we can see a student come into our doors and we can teach them for a day or a year, and we could do all these things. And when the student leaves the door and goes out into the world, we more or less separate ourselves completely from that. Now that's an extreme.

Go back to the other way of thinking, it's possible to understand that a counselor or a staff person could receive in a student with an appointment. And in a half hour, maybe could advise that person in a direction that would be totally against the wishes of parental right and parental view for that young person.

And at the end of 30 minutes, in effect, and this is no reflection, but in effect, there's no built-in further responsibility that must apply to the district nor the staff person. And that young person has, though, been greatly affected, maybe been greatly redirected in her or his life, and likely is not since they've come to this person rather than going to their parents likely is not, it may well be against the wishes of the parents.

Now going back then to the major premise that if parents indeed have the fundamental freedom in this country, which comes under I think the canopy of religion. And under that canopy, if they indeed have the inherent right to teach and inculcate and instill in their young people in their family the moral and spiritual values and convictions that they have under that fundamental freedom, then we in the public schools have no right whatsoever to place ourselves in a position of denying that.

At the same time, though, I would remind us all that perhaps one of the big reasons that the strength and the perpetuation of the family inherent right here that we're speaking of has eroded or has become or is becoming less effective than it used to be, may be because there is not enough support and opportunity to reinforce and help the parent to hang on to and to realize the inherent rights that it has as a family under our freedoms.

So it goes back the other way then. We may be-- we may find that public schools as one example is a unit of society or a segment of society that's been most receptive to taking it away and assuming it. And in the process, we haven't realized that in so doing, we are causing the family unit to be less and less effective in the very areas where they must and should retain their total inherent parental rights that's guaranteed to them.

SPEAKER: But several teachers at the South St. Paul High School felt that the issues were of secondary concern compared to the manner in which the decision was made.

SPEAKER: you're going to run a public high school, you have to present all sides of an issue. You can't run a heterogeneous high school with a homogeneous philosophy. And that's what the superintendent is attempting to do.

SPEAKER: I think one of the great dangers that we view in this directive is the fact that we're establishing educational policy in this district by one individual and not by the collective efforts of the citizenry, the staff, and that sort of thing.

I think it is an extremely dangerous sort of thing. We've seen several directives come out covering various subjects. And naturally, our question is, where do we go from here? And we're a little leery. I think you could generally say that the staff as a whole is definitely opposed to this type of policy making and public education beyond a shadow of a doubt.

SPEAKER: But we've got our share of male chauvinist that think them and the male role and the female roles are as the superintendent described them. And we've got people that reacted quite violently to that aspect of the bulletin. But I think we're as a staff pretty well united on the principle of community and staff input on policy, making decisions.

SPEAKER: I'm saddened that I have to take issue with the superintendent, but there's no way that I'm going to stand still for this type of policy making.

SPEAKER: The question was asked four or five times why this issue was brought out at this particular time. And no satisfactory answer was given. We got such things as because and I felt like it. And it's the parent's prerogative to teach their children what they should-- their moral values. But no indication as to why he was asked, is there an emergency? And no indication was given. No answer was given.

SPEAKER: You get the feeling that he is promulgating his own personal values or those of his church. And that doesn't fit in a public school, not unless he wants to turn it into a parochial school of his own kind.

SPEAKER: Some of the high school students had some opinions too.

SPEAKER: I don't know. I just-- I don't know. In a way I'm for it. In a way, I'm against it.

SPEAKER: I think I disagree with him, with the teachers who want to teach, they can teach. That's what I think. His rulings shouldn't be that hard on him. I feel that everybody should learn what they're, just going to pick it up on the streets on that, and they're going to get the wrong point net.

SPEAKER: Do you think that school is the right place or do you think your home is the right place?

SPEAKER: You could learn it at home or at school. Some things parents can't tell you and some things a teacher can. So I think they should.

SPEAKER: That's not the real issue. The real issue is if one man can have that much power to issue directives that can say such things, I think the teaching of values is important. I think the school should supplement the teachings that the students get at home. But I think the big question really is, can one man have that much power?

SPEAKER: If he's going to say this now, what is he going to say next? I mean, if they want to debate the abortion issue, they can debate those later. We should get this cleared up first.

SPEAKER: You mean who has the power?


SPEAKER: I don't think it was fair for just him to decide. I think he should have had the school board, and I think he should have had a lot of more opinions than just his to do it.

SPEAKER: Almost immediately, a group of South St. Paul parents formed an organization for the single purpose of forcing the school board to rescind the controversial order.

SPEAKER: My initial reaction was he's done it again and it's time to have it stopped. I think the whole procedure is contributed to by a number of people. It's not just Mr. Powell's fault. The school board should make that decision, shouldn't make the decision to let Mr. Powell make the decision. The group, this group is only concerned with the fact that it was made in the wrong way.

SPEAKER: We're protesting primarily. We had a petition and carried it around for signatures asking that Powell's directives be rescinded because of the manner in which they were issued. We asked questions, we got no answers. And we felt that the only place to go was the school board since they should be the ones who are setting school policy.

SPEAKER: It seems that the school board has now upheld Mr. Powell's decision. Isn't that so?

SPEAKER: Well, in effect, they've done a rather typical maneuver to put the blame on someone else take the responsibility, well, give it away that they don't want to go on record of voting for or against the proposals, the directives, nor did they want to go for or against reacting on our petitions that they pushed the whole thing into committee. And that's where it sits.

We're seeing as parents how little voice we really have in what happens in our school district that something like this came out as a directive with no input and no knowledge of the community. We feel threatened. It's our children.

SPEAKER: One of the things that has amazed me is the fact that we are going through this in 1975. And that other suburban communities in the Twin Cities went through this whole thing 8, 9, 10 years ago. And I think probably that's more of an indication of the changes that this particular town is undergoing at this time.

We're going away from being a one industry town with a high blue collar population. And we're starting to become more like the other suburbs, a place where people come to live and get their kids educated and pay their taxes and go to work in St. Paul and Minneapolis. And I think the complexion of the community is changing.

SPEAKER: One other comment that I want to make is it's probably a positive thing out of all. This is for the first time in a long time parents are really concerned about what's going on in the schools. And I see that as very positive.

SPEAKER: The way the school board handled this issue is the same way that they've been handling issues for a number of years, maybe forever. But as long as I've been around, which is refer it to a committee and keep a low profile.

And so there's nothing unique about this board not wanting to confront it and sending it off to committee. They did it with a number of issues because whenever anybody said anything, it was referred to committee. So that particular way of dealing with the problem is kind of a traditional South St. Paul way of dealing with the problem as far as the school board's point of view. Is just refer to committee and hope that the parents will go away.

And historically, it has worked fairly well in this town. I have seen a group of more than 100 people petition for a hot lunch program inside of three months, there were only two people left. So it has worked in the past. And I think they've got if it doesn't work this time, then the community has indeed changed.

SPEAKER: School board chairman [? Catherine ?] [? Cream ?] superintendent Powell had some strong personal feelings to express too.

SPEAKER: I think Mr Powell has shown real courage. I don't think when he put out the administrative bulletin, he really realized that it would be so far sweeping. But I admire his courage in standing by it. And I also feel that it's reflected in the community we have had a great response from people who have said we're proud to have a superintendent who is willing to make a statement, and that he really believes in and stand by it.

And it has been gratifying to me to see the mail that we have gotten from as far away as New Orleans, the East Coast, and it's interesting to read comments of people who have felt likewise, but felt that there was no one who was going to really speak for them.

RAY POWELL: All that is afoot here is for a very strong prime time concern for young people. And if indeed by the restrengthening and the returning to some of the inherent values that parents may have either had to give up or for some reason no longer have.

And if we indeed can help re-strengthen and rebuild some of those. And if that in turn will in any fashion tend to assist the integrity and the wonderfulness that is and should be among young people as they grow into adults to become the citizens of tomorrow, then I think whatever that has come about here in any fashion, if it is helpful to that end, then it's been well worth it.

SPEAKER: And that's where the situation stands. The focus of the problem has shifted from sex roles, birth control, and abortion to autocratic power and community concern. The real issues were buried beneath the sensational headlines. And to date, the power issues are still hot and unresolved. I'm [AUDIO OUT].


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