Patrick Crowley held the package of back-to-school documents sent to him by Okemos Public Schools. Included with the paperwork was a “Parent/Guardian Pledge Card” connected to the emergency contact and registration form.
The pledge asked parents to discuss with their children expectations and attitudes about alcohol consumption as well as boundaries of youth gatherings in their home. It asked them to agree not to leave teens at home over the weekend or provide drugs or alcohol to teen parties, nor to allow a teen to host a party without visible chaperoning, and to contact other parents who are hosting parties before allowing a teen to attend.
What surprised Crowley was an intrusive detail: parents who sign the pledge would be identified in the student directory by an asterisk. Those parents who do not sign the pledge would not have an asterisk.
“I’ll be honest, when I first saw it, I thought it was a joke,” he said.
To him, the absent asterisk is a scarlet letter the school has hung on non-conforming parents.
Christine Sermak, the principal at Okemos High School, acknowledged that the document was sent out and would be used as described this year. She said the document was the result of a “community movement, from, I’m guessing, the 1990s.”
“I think the intent was to try to create lines of communication,” Sermak said.
The document was created by a nonprofit group called Okemos Family Focus, which stopped operations and dissolved in 2011. It was approved by the Okemos Board of Education, Meridian Township Police Department, a host of student event booster groups and parent groups at Okemos elementary schools. Okemos Family Focus was founded and run by the high school’s former principal, John Lanzetta, who retired in 2010.
“It’s an overstep,” said Crowley. “That’s all there is to it. If I don’t sign it I end up on some non-asterisk list. I find that atrocious.”
Crowley also worried that the missing asterisk in the parent directory could result in Meridian Township Police targeting families who did not sign the pledge.
Jim, also an Okemos parent who declined to provide his last name for fear of a backlash against his own children, was troubled by the pledge as well.
“There were three items, I could not, in good faith, pledge to,” he said. He pointed out the issue of proscription of “moral conduct” by families presented in the pledge. “It’s the most concerning, the government intrusion into family business.”
He also noted that while he has no intention of leaving his teens alone for a weekend, “I can’t pledge that would never occur.”
He said he was also troubled by provisions that he read to mean he would have to be in the room with his kids and their friends if they were to have a party. He was also concerned about the provision requiring him to call the parents of his kids’ friends whenever those kids were getting together.
Sermak defended the purpose of the pledge. “The intent is not to create a scarlet letter,” said Sermak, but she added that she could see how someone could infer that.
She said leadership in the school will review the document and procedures to address the concerns. She said she will take it to the high school’s new drug and alcohol prevention committee, which includes parents, students, teachers and administrators.
“We spent a lot of time, money and effort to create this document and process that appears to be trying to judge or guide my moral conduct,” said Crowley.
Frank Ravitch, a First Amendment expert who teaches at Michigan State University’s law school, said he didn’t see a constitutional issue, but he views the asterisk as inappropriate.
Said Ravitch: “Putting the asterisk in the directory gives me the heebie jeebies.”