The Haines Borough School District steered a presentation by nature photographer Amy Gulick to two classrooms instead of a school-wide assembly after school board president Carol Kelly determined Gulick’s talk should fall under a “controversial issues” policy.
Resident Carol Tuynman this week asked for reconsideration of that decision and board member Anne Marie Palmieri also raised questions about it. “I was concerned it might have been a discussion not all board members were included in,” Palmieri said after Tuesday’s board meeting.
Palmieri said prior to Tuesday, she hadn’t heard the school had questions about Gulick. She was hoping the photographer could speak to her son’s fourth-grade class, which is studying industry, fishing and the Haines economy, she said.
Gulick photographed “Salmon in the Trees,” a 2010 book published by The Mountaineers Books that features scenes from the Tongass National Forest and conservation-themed essays by regional writers.
School principal Cheryl Stickler typically decides who gets to speak at school assemblies. Tuynman approached the district, starting in May, about having Gulick speak. Gulick, who has toured Southeast since publication of the book, gave similar presentations at schools in Craig and Yakutat, Tuynman said.
During an August phone conversation, Stickler told Tuynman some board members thought Gulick’s talk would fall under the controversial issues policy, Tuynman said. Stickler said this week she didn’t consider Gulick controversial, but she deferred to Kelly and to superintendent Michael Byer.
“I looked at her book and her website and had a couple conversations with (Tuynman) and I feel we were able to come to a compromise of sorts,” Stickler said.
Gulick instead would speak to a high school science class and to a Mosquito Lake School class studying Alaska history, classes where Gulick’s topic would be tied directly to curricula. In a class setting, teachers can present alternative viewpoints, she said.
“We’ll keep it on an educational level of how ecosystems work and steer it away from a discussion of governmental policy and particular viewpoints,” Stickler said.
Tuynman, who also arranged talks by Gulick at the public library, said she was disappointed. “The issues to me are censorship and they’re denying kids a great educational opportunity.”
In a newspaper interview this week, Kelly said she told Stickler that Gulick “has a particular point of view and that some parents might be concerned that the opposite point of view should also be presented.”
Kelly said there’s more to Gulick’s book than salmon fertilizing the region’s forests. “I think that she is an environmentalist to an extreme. I think (the book) is anti-development, and as you know by now, I’m pretty much a capitalist.”
Asked if he agreed with Kelly that Gulick should come under the controversial issues policy, superintendent Byer said: “You never know what’s going to be controversial. Sometimes it’s your best guess on things. If you hear things from elements of the community that something’s going to be of a controversial nature, then you need to be aware of that and make sure that you’ve covered different perspectives.”
Asked if he believed Gulick’s message was controversial, Byer said he hadn’t read the book or spoken with Gulick. “I heard that other people thought it was more controversial. I don’t know precisely, exactly (who they were) but that view was expressed and (Stickler) said that it was expressed to her. In that situation, we wanted to make sure other points of view were presented and that could be done easier in a classroom rather in a whole, school assembly.”
Stickler said the “controversial topics” policy is “nebulous” on who determines and what defines a “controversial issue.”
“That can be tricky. What you consider controversial or what should be taught in a public school setting is different than what someone else might think,” Stickler said.
An issue is that she didn’t get an outline of the presentation Gulick would have given to a school assembly, Stickler said.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Palmieri asked for a discussion of the issue, saying she hadn’t heard about it through the school. “I didn’t know that the school had said, ‘No. Amy Gulick can’t talk.’”
Kelly replied: “We looked at the schedule and how it related to curriculum and there were already conflicts and the determination was made that (Gulick) didn’t appropriately enough suit the curriculum to make an exception for it.”
Palmieri asked if Gulick had been turned down as an assembly speaker.
“I think Mrs. Stickler determined that there was another assembly already scheduled and that Gulick didn’t have enough application to the entire school curriculum to take time for an all-school assembly,” Kelly said.
“It wasn’t a school board decision,” Kelly told the board. “We ordinarily do not determine what assemblies are presented at any of our schools.”
Palmieri expressed surprise that some board members knew of the decision and others didn’t. Members Brian Clay and Sarah Swinton said they weren’t aware of it. Member Brenda Jones said she was aware of it. Jones later said she had shown Kelly Gulick’s book.
“I know about a lot of things that probably don’t... you know,” Kelly told Palmieri.