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Proposed school closing should be open to discussion

For several months, the Allegany-Limestone School Board has been considering whether to close the elementary school in Limestone because of dwindling enrollment. Middle and high school students are already bused from the village, which sits on the Pennsylvania state line, up to Allegany, some 20 miles away.

As a Limestone resident, I've remained completely uncommitted to either side of the debate, yet I've watched my neighbors rise up in outrage. Without the elementary school, they argue, the village has nothing -- and they're right.

For my part, though, I'd decided to trust the School Board's educated decision when it takes its final vote on Feb. 21.

But last week, I heard several chilling tales of alleged attempts by the superintendent to restrict discussion of the matter. As a former journalist, I knew not to take such stories at face value, so I started poking around and asking questions.

School employees say they are under a gag order that prevents them from talking about the proposed closure. Some fear for their jobs if they speak up. If students ask whether the school is going to be shut down -- and many have -- the only response employees can offer is: "Whatever happens, you'll be well taken care of."

What an ironic response, since the district's "Character Counts" program for February stressed the value of respect. Whitewashing a student's question doesn't seem like respect to me.

I talked to the parent of a high school student from Limestone who's allegedly been called to the carpet for wearing "Save Our School" T-shirts, which have been branded as disruptive. Apparently, the message was so disruptive that school officials didn't notice a different student's shirt that said "Sleeps well with others" or one that advertised "The King of Beers."

The kicker came when some fifth-graders were hunted down at school because they had used eyeliner to write "S.O.S." in small letters on their cheeks. The students were told to clean off their faces because the letters were disruptive.

I wondered again about respect. What about "respect people's First Amendment rights"? What about "respect opposing viewpoints"? What about "respect a fair and open process"?

Before a public hearing on the proposed closing, the superintendent asked residents "not to repeat points that might have been made by others in the audience" so as to keep the meeting as brief as possible. If the Board of Education doesn't hear the same concern from multiple people, how can it gauge how widespread a concern is?

And so I've awakened from my slumber of noncommitment -- not by the proposed closing but by the repeated, blatant attempts to restrict open dialogue.

Our democracy survives because we, as citizens -- no matter how young -- have the right to debate and discuss issues vital to our communities. If our administrators really have the best interests of our students at heart, they should respect their right to free speech so that they may be empowered to join in the discussion we should all be engaged in.

Chris Mackowski, of Limestone, is a professor at St. Bonaventure University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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