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Bozeman superintendent writes letter regarding Westboro Baptist Church

Published On: Aug 29 2013 03:20:56 PM MDT   Updated On: Aug 29 2013 03:21:16 PM MDT
BOZEMAN, Mont. -

The following is a letter written by Bozeman Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson regarding the upcoming protests on September 9 at Bozeman High School and on the MSU campus.

Dear Parents, Guardians and Bozeman Community Members:

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an organization based out of Topeka, Kansas, has identified both MSU and Bozeman High School as upcoming sites for pickets/demonstrations on September 9th. A recent article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle described the WBC as “...a controversial religious group, widely described as a hate group…The church protests across the country and routinely pickets soldiers’ funerals because it believes God is punishing America for abandoning its morals.” WBC Members have notified the Bozeman Police Department that the BHS picket will be from 3:15-3:45 p.m. and have identified the sidewalk along Main Street as their location. Because that area is public right-of-way the District cannot legally stop any group from assembling and restrictions may result in a violation of constitutional rights and potential lawsuit.

We have a responsibility to ensure student safety, maintain a positive environment free from intimidation and harassment, while at the same time honoring the constitutional rights of free speech for all parties involved. To this end, we will be directing all potential protest or counter protest groups to remain off district property and remain in areas designated as public right-of-way. With the assistance of legal counsel and law enforcement, we have developed a plan so that normal school operations, including bus transfer and student dismissal, are not disrupted.

For students who ride or transfer a bus at the high school, we will strive to maintain a significant separation between the bus transfer site and the protesters. Additional staff members will be present to make sure our bus transfer site will run smoothly. Staff and law enforcement will monitor student and community curiosity and possible counter protests to provide additional safety measures.

Undoubtedly, this will be a topic in the media. As parents, we play an important role in helping children process information about the picket and any related messages. Especially for older students who attend BHS, it is important that parents help their students understand their responsibilities related to freedom of expression and appropriate ways to express opinions regarding the issue. As per District policy, students have the right to exercise freedom of expression in a reasonable way, without violating the rights of others or disrupting school operations. Please see our website (www.bsd7.org) for more information.

The Bozeman School District does not endorse or promote the sentiments or pronouncements of the WBC. Further, the Board of Trustees has adopted and consistently enforces an anti-bullying and harassment policy, which states, “The Board will strive to provide a positive and productive learning and working environment. Bullying, harassment, intimidation, or hazing, by students, staff or third parties, is strictly prohibited on school property and shall not be tolerated.”

As a parent, if you have questions I would encourage you to contact your child’s principal or my office. Members of the community with questions are welcome to contact my office directly.

Rob Watson, Superintendent