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Last week was unsettled at Branford High School (BHS), as a pro-life student club wielded national backing in attempts to push for a response to the club's request to share information during lunch periods.
As of press time, the district remained mum, at least to the press, on the topic. The BHS School Guide states that "students may exercise their constitutionally protected rights of free speech and assembly as long as they do not interfere with the operations of the regular school program," while additionally noting, "It is clearly the intention of the Board of Education to promote the dissemination of diverse viewpoints and to foster discussion of all political and social issues."
And so, at the school level, the question may be whether the information the BHS Students for Life Club seeks to share during lunch is disturbing to fellow students, and whether that constitutes interfering with the operations of the regular school programming.
While the district was not responding publicly to the issue last week, information was flowing from Students for Life of America and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), two national groups assisting BHS Students for Life club founder Samantha Bailey-Loomis, a senior, with the club's request.
On March 6, ADF issued a letter to Superintendent of Schools Hamlet Hernandez, Board of Education Chair Michael Kraus, and BHS Principal Lee Panagoulias (see the letter at www.zip06.com). The letter promised to proceed with litigation if its requests were not met in writing by March 12. The Sound contacted Hernandez for an update on March 12, but the call was not returned (in addition, calls made to the high school on March 10 and 11 were directed to the district's central office and not returned).
The club's six members attended BHS on March 12 wearing red tape over their mouths with the word "Life" written across the tape.
In the letter setting the March 12 response deadline, ADF outlined its view of the district's responsibility to allow the club the same information-sharing ability as other clubs, including its right to distribute pro-life literature during lunch and other non-instructional times and to engage in "clipboarding." ADF supplied a legal definition of clipboarding as "the type of interactive communication concerning political change that is appropriately described as 'core political speech.'"
All of the material shared by the BHS club, such as life-like fetal models and photos of fetal development, are of the type encouraged by Students for Life of America, which operates with the mission "Abolish Abortion in our Lifetime."
In a statement issued through Students for Life of America last week, Bailey-Loomis said, "I hope that the Branford Public School system will respect the students at Branford High School by not acting as a barrier to the student body's equal access to essential information regarding life. I am proud to be on the front lines alongside abortion abolitionists in high schools and colleges across the country to safeguard our rights, stand up for the preborn, and make a lasting impact on our campuses."
Students for Life of America's website disparaged the school district in a March 10 blog post titled "And the School Administration Bully Strikes Again." Its author noted, "Lee Panagoulias and other administration members have attempted to censor and limit the effectiveness of the Students for Life club at their public school, telling them they could not have life-like fetal models on their education table and making it difficult for them to form and sustain the club. In the past few weeks, Mr. Panagoulias denied Sam and her club the ability to invite others to join the group in the form of clipboarding and handing out literature to students during lunch. The school has also told Branford High School Students for Life that they can only host events after school, a restriction not imposed on other student groups."
The BHS club was founded in 2013. In February 2013, shortly after the club's founding, some parents spoke to the BOE to voice their concerns. One parent described the club as being tied to a national hate organization.
In September 2012, Bailey-Loomis, then a sophomore, made local headlines after writing anti-abortion messages on BHS school property, including "Abortion is Murder" and "'Tissue' has a [heart symbol] beating at 21 days." Her effort was part of Student for Life of America's National Pro-Life Chalk Day. The chalk messages were cleared off by the school before students arrived.
At that time, Bailey-Loomis told the school newspaper, The Branford Buzz, "All I want to do is get the message across to as many people as I can that being pro-life is okay, and that I defend the rights of the unborn. It is not something that can be ignored, and I feel that only we can defend the rights of the unborn, and that's what I'm here to do: speak for those who can't."
With regard to the chalk messages' being erased, Panagoulias told the Buzz at the time, "We are a public building, and anything written on a public building is defacement of public property regardless of the message."
While sharing pro-life messages during school hours may (or may not) be controversial, outside of the school setting, there is little to debate. The club was on the Branford Green with permission last fall and also marched behind its purple and white "Students for Life" banner in the 2013 Columbus Day Parade. This spring, the club has permission from the Board of Selectmen to return to the Green on April 6 to set up a 10-x-10 tent to display "informational posters and distribute literature."