SCHENECTADY -- Jolene Damián, whose son is a first-grader at Paige Elementary, said she was shocked Tuesday morning to find a political flier in her son’s backpack asking for help to “shield” students from President Donald Trump.
The flier – part of a recent political effort by the Schenectady teachers union – made its way into her son’s school folders, where the parent found it Tuesday. Her first thought: This is not what a teacher should be sending home.
“I was shocked that there was material being handed to my kid that blatantly creates division between my son and his president – in his eyes,” said Damián, who added that she supported and voted for Trump. “My 6-year-old just saw a big headline at the top that he needs to be shielded from his president.”
She posted a picture of the flier on Facebook, garnering dozens of replies of condemnation of the flier within hours.
“This is shameful – how dare they send material home promoting fear & hate against our president,” Damián scribbled on the flier, planning to send it back to the teacher. “Don’t ever hand my child political material like this ever again!”
Damián visited the school principal Tuesday morning. She told Damian she didn’t know how the flier made its way into the backpack. Damian said that, other than the flier, she has been pleased with her son’s teacher and the school.
The flier was produced by the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, the district teachers union, as part of a Jan. 19 “day of action,” but it was not supposed to be sent home in students' backpacks, said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady union. The flier calls on parents and others to call federal lawmakers and ask them to oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos to become U.S. education secretary.
“I regret if one ended up in a backpack; that is a mistake,” Benaquisto said Tuesday.
Superintendent Larry Spring said it was not appropriate for a political flyer to be sent home in a student's backpack and that school administrators were looking into how widespread, if at all, distribution of the material was.
"That can't get in backpacks," Spring said. "We have to be really careful with those kinds of things; what we put in kids hands is essentially curriculum... it can't be partisan."
The teachers union – and the district school board – oppose DeVos because of her lack of experience in public education and her support of charter schools. On Monday, many teachers wore red shirts in a sign of opposition to Devos.
A union leader created the flier, which said Trump and DeVos “will attempt to destroy public schools” with policies “that will only serve to line the pockets of corporate profiteers at the expense of our students." The fliers were distributed to union representatives at district schools.
The teachers were supposed to distribute the fliers directly to parents as they picked up or dropped off their kids, giving teachers a chance to engage parents in a conversation about the threat DeVos and Trump pose to Schenectady schools.
Benaquisto said she provided explicit instructions to not send the fliers home with students, which she said is an inappropriate use of teachers’ “access with children.” Damián said she would have been fine if the teacher had approached her with the material directly.
Benaquisto also defended the union and individual teachers’ right to engage in the political issues that affect public schools, while noting that teachers are careful to not push a political agenda on students.
“Engaging and having honest conversations with our parents is very appropriate,” she said. “Conversations are very careful; people work to not impress their opinions on kids. (Teachers) are very aware that you are entitled to an opinion but not entitled to impose it on a child.”
Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said teachers “have an obligation to inform parents about issues that will affect their children and public schools.” He said while it is preferable to have those conversations directly with parents, he didn’t say whether NYSUT deems it appropriate for teachers to send fliers like the one circulated in Schenectady home with students.
“Parents can act on this information, or they can crumple it up and throw it away. That is their prerogative,” Korn said.