Editor's note: This article has been revised to remove a reference to a statement made in a blog post pertaining to the potential for a lawsuit over the New Trier seminar. That post was erroneously cited.
Plans by New Trier High School to host an all-day mandatory seminar for students on racism has generated an outpouring of opposition from a vocal group of North Shore parents and others who accuse the school district of choosing political sides, and of using the seminar to push a political message under the guise of sociological instruction.
However, while the ability of public schools to promote particular viewpoints is not unlimited, the legal options available to parents, students and community members to push back against the perceived overreach may be significantly more limited, said lawyers specializing in constitutional and school law.
Recently, administration at New Trier, which enrolls high school students from the wealthy communities of Wilmette, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Northfield and Glencoe in far northeast Cook County, announced its plans to host a one-day seminar for students, titled “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights.”
The event, which the school has said students are required to attend, includes keynote addresses from novelist and columnist Colson Whitehead and author Andrew Aydin. Aydin serves as Digital Director and Policy Advisor to Democratic U.S. Rep. and Civil Rights movement leader John Jewis, of Georgia.
It will also feature a number of workshop sessions from which students can choose. A Frequently Asked Questions document posted on the school’s website says about three-quarters of the 100 workshops will be led by New Trier teachers, some of whom will be including materials they use in regular classroom instruction.
Workshop sessions have been given such titles as: “21st Century Voter Suppression,” “Affirmative Action in Elite College Admissions,” “Affordable Housing and Racial Diversity,” “Blackenomics 101,” “Examining our Biases,” “Seeing the Unseen: Racial Bias All Round You,” “Taking Action Against Injustice” and “Theft or Homage? A Discussion of Cultural Appropriation,” among others.
The potentially provocative subject matter of the workshops and the seminar in general have sparked a response from some parents, who say the session is politically slanted and biased. In response, they have launched a group, which they have called “Parents of New Trier,” to petition the school administrators and board to either politically balance the event with speakers from the right wing of the political spectrum, make the event optional for students, or cancel the seminar outright.
They have placed a petition online, and plan to address the New Trier District 203 Board of Education on Feb. 20, according to their website.
The Parents of New Trier group did not respond to requests for comment from The Cook County Record.
However, published reports have indicated opponents of the seminar are exploring their options to persuade the school district to accede to their requests.
But of those options, any potential court actions may be the least likely to succeed.
Michael Rosman, a lawyer with the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative/libertarian public interest law firm in Washington, D.C., said a challenge to the school’s decision to stage the seminar, based on a constitutional law claim, would likely meet stiff headwinds in court.
He noted the law typically would grant the school district, as an extension of the state, “a great deal of latitude” in speaking and presenting a particular point of view.
“And that may be what the school would argue in a case like this,” Rosman said. “Is this necessarily a politically wise thing to do? Perhaps not.
“But the First Amendment wouldn’t have a great deal to say about this.”
Parents have also pointed to a published New Trier school board policy, enacted in 1994 and reaffirmed in 2006, which calls on the school to discuss “controversial issues” in ways that are “age appropriate, serve an educational purpose, (are) consistent with the curriculum, and present a balanced view.”
On their website, the Parents group accuses the school district of violating the policy requiring “a balanced view.”
However, even a lawsuit based on this reading of that policy could be fraught with legal pitfalls and could be met with skepticism by a judge, said Steven Glink, a Northbrook lawyer who specializes in Illinois school law and students' rights.
“From a legal point of view, the question here is: Is there a protectable right?” Glink said. “Schools have an awful lot of discretion when it comes to setting curriculum.”
He noted that history, in general, is often taught from a political perspective, regardless of the topic. As an example, Glink cited such historical topics as World War II.
“Would the courts be willing to allow some parent somewhere to force schools to present the Imperial Japanese or Nazi (Germany) perspective on the war and its outcome?” Glink said. “I don’t think any judge would say they have the right.”
As the seminar is being held on a school day and in place of that day’s regular classes, the school’s “discretion” would be broad, Glink said.
Rosman and Glink also said the rights of students to protest without consequences would be limited.
“They don’t have the right to just not go,” said Rosman. “They only have the right to protest in ways that are ‘non-disruptive,’ meaning they can’t just stand up in the middle of a presentation or a course and start shouting or screaming.”
He noted instances in which students have been allowed to wear armbands or other paraphernalia to express their displeasure with a school policy or action. But the students were still required to attend classes and other mandatory school functions.
From a public relations perspective, Glink said he believed the school may have been wiser to make only certain elements of the seminar, such as the keynote address, mandatory, while giving students the option of attending regular classes instead of the workshops.
But he and Rosman said the objecting parents’ best options were to lean on administrators and the school board to alter or cancel the seminar.
“Anybody can sue," said Rosman. "But my guess would be that their success in obtaining a result may depend on political pressure."