Obama back-to-school address a matter of debate for local districts

  • President Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama Associated Press

Published: 9/3/2009 12:00 AM

Some suburban school districts were kept busy Wednesday clarifying their positions on a controversial back-to-school Webcast next Tuesday by President Barack Obama.

Barrington Unit District 220 spokesman Jeff Arnett said administrators received about three dozen inquiries from parents concerned that Obama's address will contain political overtones that their children will be mandated to watch.

In fact, the district will leave the decision of whether to view Obama's address to the discretion of teachers, parents and students, Arnett said.

Individual teachers will decide whether to screen the speech at all, but students will then be able to excuse themselves if they or their parents so choose.

Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54 officials heard similar concerns about the speech and set similar guidelines, allowing teachers to show it but not make its viewing mandatory.

District 54 spokeswoman Terri McHugh said she spoke directly to some parents who said they were concerned about the speech but none elaborated on their objections.

Obama's address, which will air live from a high school in Virginia, is scheduled for 11 a.m. local time Tuesday and will be shown on both whitehouse.gov and C-SPAN. The White House Web site says the president will talk about the importance of children taking responsibility for their education and setting goals.

Andrew Palomo, the parent of a student at District 220's Barrington Middle School-Prairie Campus, believes the speech will be both political and unnecessary.

"I don't recall ever having a sitting president addressing schoolchildren," Palomo said. "For major events, maybe, but not the first day of school. The whole thing makes me angry as an American."

While Palomo said he found District 220 administrators to be very responsive to his concerns, he also felt the e-mail sent from the school principal somewhat condescending in its promise that children could be removed from the Webcast viewing in a "respectful and discreet manner."

Palomo said he felt this language implied there was something shameful about choosing to not participate.

Britta Wasem, the parent of children at Barrington High School and Lines Elementary in District 220, said the first she heard about the controversy was when she was told that viewing the speech would not be required.

But Wasem believes her freshman daughter is old enough to make up her own opinion, and that the speech would not be inappropriate even for her younger child.

"My honest opinion is he is the president and he should be shown some respect," Wasem said. "It'll probably make for an interesting dinner conversation. I have the tendency to think about things before I react."