Once upon a time, I believed in the good intentions of drug-abuse prevention programs in the public schools. No longer.
In April, Northfield schools secured $1,500 from the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning for a drug-abuse prevention assembly. With the blessings of the principal, superintendent and school board, Kevin Merkle, Northfield High School activities director, hired a Christian evangelist to do the job.
Don't bother to read that paragraph again. You got it right the first time. Public dollars. Public school. Christian evangelist.
The evangelist is Bradlee Dean, a former cocaine addict who took Christ as his savior, picked up an electric guitar, and has been reaping the benefits from his born-again nonprofit tax status ever since. During the past school year, Dean appeared in 28 schools, sucking up money intended for drug-abuse prevention programs and abstinence-only sex education.
Faribault schools paid him $3,000 for two assemblies; Centennial in Minneapolis gave him $5,000. Your tax dollars at work.
Northfield schools were easy pickings for Dean. Every spring, our high school secures federal and state money for events during WAITT (We're All in This Together) Week. It is our annual orgy of workshops, performances and lectures on the importance of juvenile abstinence, sobriety and self-esteem.
Every year, the district dances closer to the edge of social engineering and fascism.
This year, Northfield High School went all the way during two mandatory assemblies at which Bradlee Dean's blond wife sang her rock-version of "Jesus Loves Me" to an auditorium filled with captive high school children. Then, after blasting them with loud, ear-crippling guitar garbage, Dean accused Northfield youth of loving pornographic movies, booze and guns. He charged them with drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and something called "impure thoughts."
His wife instructed the girls on appropriate ways to be "chaste" for their husbands to be and said disparaging things about homosexuality, lesbianism and single-parent-families. Meanwhile, Dean's goon squad worked the assembly crowd, handing out tracts with calls for repentance. The 56-page booklet tells the sad, sordid tale of Dean's drug-filled, promiscuous youth and how he was saved by his personal relationship with You Know Who. All of this was packaged as preventative education to the children of the farm families of Rice County; the sons and daughters of St. Olaf and Carleton, Sheldahl and Malt-O-Meal.
I called Merkle to find out his version of what happened. "Well, two interesting assemblies today," he said. "Inspired a lot of great conversation."
When I asked him if he thought the content was inappropriate for public schools, he said, "You just don't want us to do anything Christian, that's your problem."
Merkle is correct. And I am not alone in my allegiance to the Constitution. I hang out with folks who would take a bullet in the forehead over this issue. They believe, as I do, that schools have no business in the business of religion.
The mission of our public school system is to teach responsible citizenship. Rather than attempting to convert children to faith, public schools should be about converting students to be intellectually curious, critical thinkers who challenge societal assumptions.
Teaching the love of God is the work of religious professionals and people of faith. Discipleship is a discipline learned in the home, church, synagogue and temple. Not the public schools. For some reason, these straightforward ideas are too complex for the timid souls in my school district.
But not for the rest of us. After the assembly, I joined more than 60 citizens who signed a petition, calling for the district to take action. We wanted our school board to investigate possible malfeasance by an administration that turned the other cheek while Dean humiliated our children.
In response to the petition, the superintendent placed Kevin Merkle, the school official who arranged for the assemblies, on the committee to investigate.
Like many small towns, our school board is a cozy club of decent, law-abiding hand-holders. The Northfield board consists of sunburned Norwegians, one or two fathers of high-school jocks and several silent, baffled women. They all want to believe in the good intentions of our administration. And they don't want anyone to get in trouble over the Constitution. Bradlee Dean knows this all too well. He told me so when I phoned him after the event in Northfield.
"The time is right for my kind of witness," he said. "The "abstinence only' money is there, and young people are hungry for the truth. And principals love me. Especially in the small towns. That's where people are most open to the word of God."
Maybe so. For many of us in the heartland, the Lord is our shepherd. That doesn't mean we want our schools to become spiritual troughs for the sheep. And the school district may have forgotten something: Northfield folks don't do well with people who don't respect our laws. Don't try to rob our bank or spit on our Constitution. We can get downright nasty.
Watch us fight this one.
Holmgren (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer, broadcast commentator and Presbyterian pastor, with a daughter in high school. She also is a board member of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, which is considering legal action against the school district.
© 2001 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press