Two parents are suing Ketchikan’s school district over a school’s use of traditional tribal values.
In the hallways and classrooms of Ketchikan Charter School are posters with a list of traditional Alaska Native values. The 14 Southeast Traditional Tribal Values range from “respect for self, elders and others” and “speak with care,” to things like “discipline and obedience to the traditions of our ancestors” and “reverence for our creator.”
That last point has proven controversial.
“I feel that one of the values, ‘reverence for our Creator,’ is undeniably a religious statement about creationism,” parent Justin Breese said at a school board meeting in April.
He filed the suit on July 25 along with his wife, Rebecca King, who’s also a kindergarten teacher at the Charter School. The lawsuit notes that they are filing the suit on behalf of their children.
In their lawsuit against Ketchikan Charter School and Ketchikan’s school district, the couple argues that the school’s use of the values violates the First Amendment and the state’s constitution. The lawsuit takes particular issue with the school’s “value of the week” program, which rewards students that exemplify the values.
King also spoke to the school board in April.
“This system rewards students for showing tribal values and holds it up as what all students should strive for,” King said. “In our school, the Ketchikan Charter School, a student is highlighted and given a reward embodying the value of the week.”
She said she disagrees in modeling one culture as what is best or right. She thinks the values should be taught in lessons about culture, and that cultures should be represented in the classroom.
The lawsuit also states that the current use of the values is in violation of King’s civil rights by “pressuring her to teach, endorse, and promote religious values.”
Breese told the board that he wanted the values to be presented in context.
“I personally think that we can do better than just posting cultural values in our classrooms,” he said. “While opposed to this posting, I also don’t believe that it’s an effective way to build cultural respect. I think that the school district needs a better plan.”
He submitted a formal request asking the school district to take the posters down and restrict the use of the document to lessons about tribal values and beliefs. But the district declined. A decision by district business manager Katie Parrott found that the values represented a Native outlook on life. She says that there isn’t an overall religion specific to Southeast Alaska that the values advocate. She said the values were used for cultural, rather than religious, education.
Breese appealed to the school board, which upheld the district’s ruling.
Now, Breese and King are asking Ketchikan Superior Court Judge Katherine Lybrand to order the district to take down the posted values from common areas and stop using them to promote good behavior.
Ketchikan’s school district has yet to respond to the lawsuit in court. Superintendent Michael Robbins referred questions to the district’s attorney, Clinton Campion, who did not return phone calls on Wednesday.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.