A Conversation with Jeremy Samek, Senior Counsel
“Parents Matter” was one storyline that defined the governor’s race in Virginia. Heated exchanges have been happening in school board meetings across the country (including Pennsylvania) dealing with issues ranging from curriculum concerns to controversial books to policies that infringe on fundamental students’ rights.
I sat down with Jeremy Samek, a former school board member and current Senior Counsel for PA Family, to discuss these topics.
What would you say are some of the challenges with connecting school boards with parents?
Jeremy Samek (JS): I think whenever you talk about school board members – a lot of times people think about going to a school board meeting to have a conversation with board members but that’s a very difficult place to actually have a conversation. A lot of boards are instructed by their solicitors, which are the attorneys for the school, not to respond because they want to hear what the parents’ opinions are so that they can contribute to how they think about an issue or policy moving forward, but a lot of times that practice creates a little bit of distrust.
You should absolutely go to school board meetings and be vocal on what you think about certain issues. But also take the time to have a conversation with them afterwards, write letters to them or take them out to coffee. That can help connect these school board members with you, maybe break down a little bit of the difficulty in communication when there is a podium between you and them, which can sometimes contribute to the arm’s length – the animosity that sometimes comes with arm’s length conversations like that. Break down those barriers and have more of a personal understanding.
What about school boards who are acting in opposition to your requests? What should parents do if they feel like the school is headed in the opposite direction of their beliefs?
JS: When a school district is doing things that are contrary to what you think is in the best interest of your kids and your family and other kids in that school district, having those conversations with them, letting them know in public meetings what’s going on is important. For instance, if there’s a library book or a book in the curriculum that has pornographic images – and there’s lots of those nowadays unfortunately – they might not even know that this book is being used by a teacher or that the library has put that book in there.
Sound the alarm and let other people know what’s happening, but don’t prematurely question everybody’s motives. Sometimes a problem happens because of one or two people and it’s really not the fault of every board member or even the superintendent might not know.
Don’t pin the violation on everybody without asking questions first to find out who is really responsible. If the school is still going in the opposite direction once everybody’s been made aware and once you’ve gone as far as you can go to the bottom of who is responsible, then it’s time to start enlisting some people to run as a new school board member. Talk to a friendly school board member who may be in the minority (but they may be on your side) to find a strategy that might best effect the change that you need at the moment.
Parents and students have contacted you for help with changing discriminatory school policy. One such example was with a high school student Bible club. Can you tell us more about this case?
JS: The actual interaction with this school district started out in the beginning of the year when the clubs were putting flyers on the walls in the approved locations letting students know when and where the meetings were. The Bible club in the Mechanicsburg Area School District was told by the principal that they were not approved to put up their flyer because it had a Bible verse on it, and they were explicitly told that if they removed the Bible verse, then he would let them put up the flyer.
This denial was a violation of the students’ right to free speech, which they don’t leave at the schoolhouse gate when they enter the door. In that situation, we reached out to the school district, wrote them a letter, we got in touch with the solicitor, sent them case law and they ended up saying ‘yeah, you’re right,’ and the principal switched course and allowed them to put up that poster.
Two months later, that same club had asked for permission to reserve the school club table in the cafeteria during lunch time and they were going to have a poster that people were going to sign and say what they were thankful for. When people came up to sign it, they were going to offer them a Bible that this club had paid for with their own money. The school granted the request to have the table and poster, but the principal told them in writing they could not hand out the Bibles on school property during the school day.
They had allowed other groups to hand out things during the school day from that same club table, but they were not allowing the Bible club to do it. When we looked into the policies, it actually said that they were not allowed to share materials anywhere during the school day, only 30 minutes before and after school on the public sidewalks bordering school property. Any of us could go stand on the sidewalk and offer somebody a book at those locations anytime of day, so these policies were explicitly unconstitutional in how they were written. But they were also unconstitutional in how they were being applied because they were only being applied against the Bible club.
We like to start handling this type of situation by writing a letter because in the best case scenario, someone is confused about the law, or sometimes somebody’s just made a mistake. We want to give them a chance to fix that without going down any road that would create resentment unnecessarily. So we did that with Mechanicsburg but to no avail.
So we ended up going to the school board meeting and after the school board meeting the superintendent doubled down on their denials so we were forced to go to federal court. We won. We ended up being the ones who rewrote their policy. One of the benefits of this case is not only that the rights of kids in this one school were protected, but we found about 50 other school districts in Pennsylvania had similar policies and we were able to get those other school districts to change their unconstitutional policies as well.
Some people might say it’s not a big deal or not bother pushing back against the school’s policy. What would you say to that?
JS: I think when these kids stood up and said this is wrong, they weren’t looking for a fight. They weren’t looking to end up with their names or this issue in the media. They weren’t looking to end up in federal court. They were just looking to be faithful and share the gospel. They faced a cost for doing that. There were statements made to the media by others that were false statements about them. There were people, who were even posting on social media saying ‘these kids shouldn’t be forcing kids to take Bibles’ which was not true. All they did was ask permission if they could do it and even then it was just to offer someone a Bible while they were passively sitting at a table.
So when people get involved in these things there’s a cost. People will say things that are false about you. They’ll say things that are false about your motives. But we know that when we’re faithful, when we’re trying to do what’s right, people may attack our reputation, and we can’t control what people say about our reputation, but what we can control is our character, and we can control our witness, and that’s what matters and that’s what we love – stepping beside and helping people who are going to be going through something difficult in order to stand up for what’s right; those who have to count the cost who are going to face things. We love being able to stand beside them, walk beside them and help them through that situation and being able to see great results at the end, not only in their own personal relationship with God, but in their ability to share their faith with others.
In the case of the Bible club, there was also a ripple effect of more parents taking action after hearing about their case. For instance, during a Valentine’s Day party in a district on the other side of the state, a child had brought in hand-made valentines that he was passing out to his classmates that said ‘roses are red, violets are blue, someone loves you, here’s a clue, John 3:16.’ Once the teacher saw that’s what he was passing out, she went around and picked out all of those valentines out of the kids’ bags, confiscated them, and brought them to the principal’s office. So the principal called the mom and said ‘this kid can’t hand out these valentines because it has a religious reference on it, but to help you out we’ll gladly cut off the bottom, the reference to John 3:16 and then allow him to pass it out.
The mom called us and said, ‘I don’t have any money, I can’t afford a lawyer, but I saw an article about the Bible club case that you did and was just wondering if you would let me know if we were in the right, I just can’t afford a lawyer.’ She didn’t know the Independence Law Center does all of our work pro-bono, that is free of charge. We said we’d be glad to take a look at that case, and when we got in touch with the solicitor of the school and he said, ‘I’m thankful that you guys reached out to me because not only am I going to make sure this is corrected here, but I represent other schools, and I know some of the other ones are doing the same thing.’
So the ripple effect that happened from these four students at Mechanicsburg to stand up against an administration who quite frankly lied to the media about them had a great effect not only in their school but for kids in the younger grades who are going to be coming after them, and it had a ripple effect to those 50 other school districts who now had to change their policies. So it’s really encouraging to see those ripple effects go out from that initial act of faithfulness of these kids.
How can the faith community get involved with helping school board members? You have seen churches get involved with programs approved by school boards – how has that worked?
JS: First, I’d say churches need to pray for board members and administrators, like it says in 1st Timothy chapter 2, to pray for those in authority. For churches who are looking for ways to help in their school district, there’s a variety of ways. I’ll just explain one example from the school district where I was a board member. We created a policy that was very similar to the homeless student policy that our school district had that basically says when someone is in a homelessness situation the school should provide them with resources of places they can get help. That includes private or religious organizations that help people facing homelessness.
We really just modeled a policy after that one to say when there’s a student who is pregnant, the school district will provide them with information about resources that can help during their pregnancy or after the baby is born so the mom can continue her education. Things like free and reduced childcare options. This is really something that really helps this new mom to be able to continue her education. Churches have people who are qualified to watch kids, who have gone through the background checks, who can watch that baby during the school day or even during extracurriculars so that girl can continue her education. The baby is going to be better off at the end of the day when their mother is able to graduate high school. It’s going to help them be able to provide for that baby. And this policy is something that both major parties can agree on. It doesn’t cost the school money and it doesn’t matter even if a school board member is pro-choice or whether they are pro-life – they should all agree that it’s good for a girl to be able to continue her education and graduate.
Churches in the area of the school were able to provide assistance. Whenever a girl became pregnant they would be provided with resources from ministries and other private organizations who are available to be able to watch and provide childcare for that student, and more in some instances, so they can finish their education. That’s an example of a nice partnership between public schools and churches. The end-product is a good education for the children who are in that district, which at the end of the day ends up benefitting society as a whole and that new family.