A trial is underway to determine if posting a list of traditional values that include “reverence for our creator” in Ketchikan’s public schools violates the First Amendment. On the first day of the trial on Tuesday, witnesses on both sides testified about how the list has been used in local schools.
Ketchikan Charter School kindergarten teacher Rebecca King, one of the plaintiffs, testified that she thinks posting the value in common areas could violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The value is one of 14 on a list developed years ago by Southeast Native leaders, at the 2004 Elders Forum on Traditional Values. The 14 values appear on posters around the school district. She argued that it’s a constitutional violation to use it in a behavioral reward system at Ketchikan Charter School.
“I interpret it as the promotion of creationism, whether that be by Raven or God or another supernatural entity outside of ourselves or science,” King said.
King is suing the district alongside her husband, Justin Breese, on behalf of their children, who are students in the school district. King made it clear that she doesn’t want schools to stop teaching the values, but said she thinks that there’s a line between teaching about beliefs and telling students what to believe. “Reverence for our creator” has not been selected as a “value of the week” or “value of the month” at the school.
“The fact that they’re teaching my child what to believe, as opposed to how to behave, and that my rights as a parent are being overrun, I do believe that the 14 tribal values should be taught about in the Ketchikan School District, 100%, but I do not believe they should be taught as what my child should believe,” King said.
King said that behaviors in the school’s intervention system should be “measurable and observable,” and that the values are not.
“Some of the 14 tribal values in part or whole are not behaviors, they are beliefs,” she said.
King says she’s spent hours reading traditional Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian stories. But she said she believes lessons should focus on concepts backed by evidence.
“I am not allowed to teach beliefs to the students in my classroom, even if they are in factual dispute,” she said. “For instance, Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. I teach kindergarten. And those are not beliefs I teach to them.”
That comment drew ire on social media, including from the president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, as well as members of Ketchikan’s federally recognized tribe.
Ketchikan Charter School principal Kayla Livingston testified that the values posters are hung in places like classrooms, offices, foyers and hallways.
Livingston said the presence of tribal values in schools has made a difference for Indigenous students. About a third of Ketchikan’s students are Indigenous.
“I feel that we have had a huge support from our parents and the community for what we’ve done,” Livingston said.
King and Breese want the posters to be taken down from school common areas and incorporated into lessons that give the values context. They say that as it stands, it looks like the school is endorsing all 14 values.
That was a key question throughout questioning on Tuesday: does the school district endorse all the values? King and Breese argue that hanging the posters around the school — without being part of a lesson — poses a problem.
The district’s curriculum director testified that incorporating local elements into a curriculum — through “place-based learning” — improves students’ performances.
Expert witnesses are expected to testify before Judge Katherine Lybrand Ketchikan Superior Court on Wednesday (5-3).
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.