News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 17, 2013

EDITORIAL: Hateful comments disrupt flow of respectful discourse

Let’s hope reason will win the day

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Voices of reason may get drowned out in the heat of a moment, but in the long run they stand out.

Two situations involving Wabash Valley schools drew intense public attention last week. Some of the responses were understandable questions about school policies. Other reactions — especially comments posted anonymously on online message boards and through social-media sites — turned mean. Both cases needed rational discussion.

In time, these will be seen as teachable moments for the community.

One stemmed from a plan by organizers unaffiliated with Sullivan High School to conduct a “traditional” prom for heterosexual couples only, separate from the annual school-sponsored prom in the SHS gym. The alternative prom idea arose after two girls wanted to participate in the school’s annual “grand march” — the introduction of couples at the prom with friends and family gathered around. A few churches and “concerned citizens” backing the heterosexual-only prom said they opposed the inclusion of same-sex couples on a biblical basis. Sullivan High School officials said its prom would not exclude anyone.

After national news outlets mentioned the name of a church where those concerned citizens gathered for a meeting, the church got flooded with more than 3,200 emails, as well as phone calls and faxes. The minister at the church, who emphasized its neutrality on the issue, said those incoming messages included porn images and “hateful” words.

Another Sullivan pastor admirably supported the rights of the girls, and any students, to participate in the prom, saying it is “not a theological issue for the church to wrestle with. This is an issue of civil rights.” That voice of reason was needed.

An unrelated situation occurred on Feb. 8 at Dixie Bee Elementary School. A Muslim couple and their three young daughters — who are students at the school — were allowed to walk from classroom to classroom, distributing gifts and quotations from the Muslim prophet Mohammed to the teachers. The family was participating in a national event organized by Muslims called “Mohammed is a Prophet of Mercy — Sharing the Language of Peace and Love.” The family also video-recorded the gift-giving to preserve memories of their time in Terre Haute before moving back to Saudi Arabia in a year.

The access granted the family to hand out the gifts, room to room, apparently boiled down to a misunderstanding between the principal — who was away from the school at the time — and office staff members. The family’s advance request was approved after Vigo County School Corp. officials sought the opinion of a Indiana School Boards Association attorney, but the idea was for the family to leave the materials at the office. Afterward, once the family learned they were not supposed to go door to door or video-record, they were very apologetic and returned to Dixie Bee to allow the principal to erase the video.

Like the Sullivan prom, the anonymous reactions in online forums went beyond relevant questions of school access and safety policies, and instead reflected stereotypes and bigotry aimed at the family’s religious faith. As VCSC director of student services Ray Azar said, “It’s very difficult to read some of the nasty comments made. Some of the things out there are really disturbing, and I hope it will stop.” That dose of reason was needed, too.

The discourse over these issues is important. It should be respectful of others’ rights, too.