Weight Watchers, Protest Warriors, and Cribbing for Commencement

By Mark Toner — June 10, 2005 3 min read
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Big Brother, it seems, has joined the ongoing battle against childhood obesity. Georgia parents can now use the Internet to track their kids’ eating habits at school., which operates electronic payment plans for school cafeterias in 21 states, launched the parental monitoring system in three Atlanta-area districts. The company even promises to flag any cash kids might pull out of their own pockets to supplement lunch with a furtive cookie or two. “A parent could give a child $20, and within two days, that money’s gone,” said a executive. “This allows them to see if they bought chips.”

Such monitoring may seem excessive, but bear in mind that the federal government now considers school lunches a matter of homeland security. An Agriculture Department official recently let it be known that the feds have been considering the possibility of terrorists targeting food used in school cafeterias. While food-safety administrator Carol Maczka offered no evidence that specific threats had surfaced, milk, spaghetti sauce, egg substitutes, and chicken nuggets all had been secretly studied for possible vulnerabilities.

Conservative activists aren’t at all secretive about their plans to push back “liberal bias” among educators. Buoyed by recent successes at the college level—this year alone, 14 state legislatures have considered bills addressing professors’ political biases—groups with names like and the Christian Copts of California are now focusing on K-12 teachers that some consider part of a “public school indoctrination machine,” in the words of the editors of “The last six months [have] been ... a watershed for the academic-freedom movement,” explained one group’s director. “It is going to filter itself down to the K-12 level.” The unanswered question is how educators can lead discussions of any sort about current events or other controversial topics. “The risk is that teachers will feel even further restrained than they already do,” opined a think tank director.

A public health researcher claims that some sex-ed programs in Ohio are not restrained enough by scientific facts. Pro-abstinence curricula are now offered in 85 of the state’s 88 counties, and some misstate basic information, such as condom failure rates; blame contraceptives for ill mental health; and suggest that birth control pills increase the chance of infertility, according to a report by Scott Frank, a Case Western Reserve University researcher. Other programs suggest that HIV can be transmitted through tears or open-mouth kissing and urge teens to “follow God’s plan for purity.” Nationwide, the federal government has earmarked $186 million for such programs this year. “Sometimes I found myself shaking my head, wondering, What decade are we living in?” Frank said.

Public school advocates may be asking the same question in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry signed measures restricting abortion and same-sex marriage at an evangelical Christian school. While Perry’s supporters stressed that the signing was nondenominational and intended for everyone, the event had all the makings of a political stunt—his campaign sent out e-mails inviting “pro-family Christian friends” to “celebrate with us.” During the signing—held in the Calvary Christian Academy’s gymnasium—roughly 100 protestors outside questioned the governor’s priorities. “Rick Perry is in trouble politically because the GOP refuses to unite us around public schools,” said one protestor, noting that a crucial school financing bill had faltered in the Statehouse.

Facing faltering graduation rates, one Arizona district has opted to fine parents $100 or more for their children’s’ truancy. The tribal council of Phoenix’s Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation will dock parents every time their kids skip school or are tardy, with repeat offenders facing a maximum $300 fine per offense. It’s part of a larger effort to provide homework help and other student support.

Florida principal Susan Duval was trying to help her school’s graduating seniors when she advised them to wear sunscreen and not “worry about the future.” The only problem was that although she billed her commencement address as her “personal thoughts,” the principal’s speech borrowed liberally from a newspaper column. After the Hernando County school board announced an investigation, Duvall apologized, acknowledging that she’d also cribbed material for her 2004 commencement speech. While the district’s code of ethics says students caught repeatedly plagiarizing can be suspended or expelled, the principal’s fate remains unclear. But Duvall’s 2004 speech, called “All I Need To Know I Learned From Noah’s Ark,” included the following advice: “Remember that we are all in the same boat.”

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