Obama’s speech controversy: Casey Mahon’s no-good, very-bad, horrible days

Casey Mahon has had a couple of no-good, very-bad, horrible days.

Ever since a principal contacted him Tuesday night to ask: What do you know about some kind of presidential address to the nation’s school kids?

He knew zip about that — not good for the official spokesman for the Elk River Area School District, population 12,306, in the north metro.

So he couldn’t knowledgeably advise that principal about handling the parent and community calls and emails seeping in, those cries of “Foul ball!” and charges the president would use his bully pulpit to indoctrinate children to his way of thinking.  

Early Wednesday morning, Mahon learned that district higher-ups weren’t keyed into the game plan either. 

What happened next is a rare behind-the-scenes story, as shared by Mahon Thursday, of how one school district tried to handle a political wildfire.  It’s the kind of background stuff district P.R. folks don’t often share with us education reporters.       

In a mad search for answers, Mahon called the high mucky-muck education folks in D.C., “not normal protocol,” but a necessity, Mahon said, as the complaints multiplied. Emails from parents and community members sent to the district charged that the feds were mandating school kids listen to their president. “That in and of itself sent up red flags,” Mahon said.

No, there was no mandate, no requirement that kids tune into the presidential podcast or the C-Span airing at 11 a.m. Tuesday, the feds said. Watching the prez speak is optional.

And, oh, we’re sorry you didn’t hear about the speech from us. Most districts did.

Back home, the angry protests from folks in Michele Bachmann’s 6th Congressional District kept coming. And, with the start of school just days away, “It became a logistical issue” — how to do all that needed doing before the first day and still and address the controversy, Mahon said. “We are not here to play politics. We are here to educate kids.”  

Certainly the district couldn’t afford to send parents a mailing: The district was cringing from wounds left by a recent and necessary $6 million budget reduction.

By the dozens, objectors sang the same song:  The president wasn’t really just going to inspire students of all colors and backgrounds to work hard and to do well in school — he was going to deliver a politically partisan message. And parents wouldn’t have their children exposed to that.

There were rumors of organized efforts to keep kids out of school if watching the president were incorporated into the school day. One person emailed saying the president would “indoctrinate kids with his health plan.” There were about 50 communications in all, which might not seem like many, but officials kept worrying the issue would explode. 

“It was, like: Where is this stuff coming from?” Mahon said. Nationwide, districts were encountering similar objections.

Then Mahon encountered a new issue. U.S. Department of Ed talking heads were describing the prez’s comments as a pep talk, but Mahon took a look at their official website and read suggested lesson plans, including one suggesting that students read a presidential biography, even one about Barack Obama. Could this be open to misinterpretation? Maybe it was that kind of curriculum suggestion that fueled the controversy, Mahon figured.

District officials made a decision: If staff or students wanted to watch the historic first presidential talk to kids across the nation at the same time, they could do it on their own time.

Even that, though, rubbed some folks the wrong way. An angry teacher called the administration “reading it completely wrong,” Mahon said. “Does that mean we can never talk about politics in class?” Mahon recalled that teacher asking.

“The perception could be that school district was trying to censor watching the president. That’s ridiculous,” Mahon said.

Suddenly, the veteran district public relations guy had nightmare visions of the misunderstanding mushrooming and finding Elk River schools spotlighted or ridiculed on MSNBC’s liberal “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”

Mahon feared Elk River schools would be portrayed as “this big bad guy not allowing the president to be in the classroom.”

So he did his due diligence, calling the state Department of Ed, which told him it was taking no position on the matter. He conferred with school public relations folks and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

And the district modified its position. The address will be shown in schools outside the classrooms so those who CHOOSE to see it may, but it won’t be part of the curriculum for students Tuesday. The higher-ups and curriculum specialists will watch and later advise whether it could be appropriate for classrooms.

Further, SHOULD a teacher show it in a classroom, parents will be informed first and kids can opt out.  Otherwise, the speech could spark a “civil, nonpartisan, educational conversation,” Mahon said.

For now, life should be pretty much back to normal for Mahon. Except for the colonoscopy he had scheduled for today.

Related content:

Minnesota schools scramble to deal with Obama’s address to kids

Prepared Remarks of President Obama’s Back to School Event

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Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by John Roach on 09/04/2009 - 11:03 am.

    President Bush I broadcast a speech to all school children on October 1, 1991 using CSpan. He touted his educational initiatives. What the current hysteria illustrates is that our country has become balkanized by the media.

    Most modern journalism no longer tries to report what is true; it simply repeats even the most outrageous and easily debunked lies as “he said, she said”. Combine this with the extreme, agenda-driven bias of a major cable news network and the result in 2009 is that a number of people in the US no longer know what is true and what is not.

    These folks are terrified of our elected President. They have been told to be terrified of him, and no one that they listen to, watch, or read is willing to tell them they have been fed a pack of lies.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/04/2009 - 11:21 am.

    I don’t expect school boards and administrators to do anything except do what is right. I don’t care if they show it or not. What I do care is if they fold because of loud opposition by a small group of bigoted zealots. When I vote for a school board member I expect a little bit of a backbone. They have a duty to do the best things for the students, not their crazy parents.

    I’ll be writing my local superintendent in Spring Lake Park with those sentiments.

    The last two presidents to do this were Reagan and Bush Sr. I don’t remember Democrats scurrying around worrying about it. Only in the right-wing modern America do we have parents who don’t want their children to hear a speech aimed at encouraging them to take advantage of a free public education.

  3. Submitted by Terry Hayes on 09/04/2009 - 12:10 pm.

    A crazed rightwing friend of mine asked my opinion about this ‘indoctrination’ before I even heard of Obama giving a speech on Sept. 8.
    I’m sure that without the rightwing noise machine pouncing on it, it would have passed uneventfully, kids would have heard from their President, and the lunatics would not have to interrupt their war on health care.

    Incidentally, if you look at the comments for this story on twincities.com, the Pioneer Press website, you’ll feel like the kid in Slumdog Millionaire after he escaped from the outhouse. It’s as bad as, maybe worse than, the Strib (which my blood pressure can’t take anymore). It would be nice if their comments section wasn’t open to every berserk weirdo in the country. What are they thinking?

  4. Submitted by Pamela Espeland on 09/04/2009 - 12:15 pm.

    I can’t imagine anything more inspiring for many students than to hear our first black President say “study hard, do well in school.” The schools and parents and district officials who don’t see this should be ashamed of themselves.

  5. Submitted by Mary Tambornino Tambornino on 09/04/2009 - 12:19 pm.

    Since when do bullies get their way. The fuss about the President of the United States
    delivering a message to school children is just that, a fuss. It is also an insult to those of us who may be dismayed or those of us who are pleased.

    I am astonished that it is given the name of controvsy, it should be called what it is: ugly.

  6. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 09/04/2009 - 12:21 pm.

    Public education is very far from free.

  7. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 09/04/2009 - 12:29 pm.

    Why don’t districts treat this issue just like sex ed? If you don’t want you kids to see it, tell the school that so they can pull your kids out of the classroom and have them sit in the hallway with a word puzzle for 45 minutes (which is very educational, by the way).

    Then the rest of the students can watch and not have their educational experience stifled by a bunch of parents who simply do not like the current president.

    Let’s face it — if we were facing this same situation a year ago, we’d just have the opposite side of the political spectrum crying fowl. Really, it IS that petty.

  8. Submitted by Michele Olson on 09/04/2009 - 12:32 pm.

    In this country of such great prosperity and possibility, we are failing our children and we are failing the people who have come before us.

    We are afraid of change. We don’t want to open our minds to new ideas. We don’t want to face the future. We don’t want to grow as a species.

    We shut out words and viewpoints that do not agree with ours. We refuse to read opposing editorials. We even refuse to turn the television and radio channels.

    We are segmenting our population, into colors and languages, into political parties, into haves and have-nots. The Tower of Babel is now, only we have done it to ourselves.

    We want to cling to our childhoods, to our own selfish needs, to our illusions of what this country should be. We do not understand that this country will be what our children will make of it.

    But understanding this, knowing that the future is not ours, but theirs to determine, is a frightening thing for some people. They believe that they can mold the future through their children, through careful scrutiny of what is learned, what is heard, what is seen.

    This has been attempted throughout history, and has failed. Our children will decide for themselves. Let them decide for themselves.

  9. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/04/2009 - 12:43 pm.

    Crazed is the right word. Reagan and Bush had videos in school, but when President Obama does it, it’s somehow communist and socialist and radical and indoctrinating children and all sorts of evil things. These rightwing conservatives do not like ANYTHING Obama does, and they’ll lie, stamp their feet, and throw tantrums. Don’t interrupt me with the facts.
    It is a damned shame: President Obama is articulate, eloquent, and has his own experiences to try to convince kids (especially black kids) of the need to stay in school and study. He could h ave a huge, positive influence.

  10. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 09/04/2009 - 12:44 pm.

    Michele Olson is right; maybe we should not be too concerned about this. The world is passing these people by and they don’t know it.

  11. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/04/2009 - 12:56 pm.

    I’m not going to try and explain anything to anyone, that’s a hopeless cause.

    Rather, I’d like to point out how the country’s immediately negative reaction to Obama’s little schoolroom chat illustrates just how deeply, irrevocably divided this country is….and how unpopular Barak Obama has become in such a short time.

    Leftists would have you believe that the angry stakeholders that have confronted Democrat legislators all summer long are minions of the insurance industry.

    That has been proven wrong.

    So now, the same crowd is claiming that this current scandal is being fueled by a few loud voices….but the stories coming from the school districts all over the country tell another story.

    The noise you hear is mainstream America saying, clearly and unambiguously, “NO”. No to the Democrats socialist agenda; no to Obama’s efforts to use our children for his political agenda.

    This tactic is straight out of Bill Ayers’ pedagogy…the grasshopper has learned well from the master.

    That noise you hear are the voices of the American voters that will carry the Democrat party out of power in 2010 and Obama and his Chi-town crew out of the White House in 2012.

    I just wish people had taken the time to research his background before heading to the voting booth.

  12. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 09/04/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    I agree with Pamela that it would be great for kids to hear the first black president encourage studying and doing well in school, but the problem is that nobody is really sure that is what will be said. If that is it, then why not produce the video and have schools air it at their convenience?

    The issue, as I understand it, is that this is going to be a live transmission of a speech that appears to be changing. According to KARE-11 News last night, at one time it included verbiage to the effect that students should write letters to themselves stating what they could do to help the president. That is where people get a bit nervous because it draws parallels to more dictatorial environments than what America is supposedly about (although we can probably argue about how that is changing too).

  13. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/04/2009 - 01:10 pm.

    Joe,

    In terms of free, it means that if your parents have zero money, they get to go to school, too. I realize someone has to pay for it and most of us do. But if it isn’t free, that means the poor are forever trapped in poverty. This way, they have opportunity.

    Swift,

    As Barney Frank said: “On what planet do you spend most of your time?” All of your comments are opinion, which is fine, but they are stated as facts — facts that are not, as the saying goes, backed up by facts.

  14. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/04/2009 - 01:24 pm.

    @Thomas,

    “…just how deeply, irrevocably divided this country is…”

    Deeply I’ll grant you. That much is obvious. “Irrevocably”? I hope you’re just engaging in your usual careless hyperbole. It’s irrevocable only if we want it to be. Sadly, it seems a lot of conservatives do want it that way.

  15. Submitted by Bob Filipczak on 09/04/2009 - 01:33 pm.

    I asked my mother about it. She survived the Depression, and then went on to survive World War II as a Red Cross volunteer in Italy.

    She doesn’t recognize this country anymore. She said “I never thought I would live in a country where the president can’t talk to our children.”

  16. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 09/04/2009 - 01:52 pm.

    @Eric –

    It’s only conservatives that want it that way? I’m pretty sure both ends of the political spectrum are guilty for the divisiveness because it is the only way that they can maintain the 2-party system. Plus, if only one side wanted division it wouldn’t exist…has to be two to tango.

  17. Submitted by John Jarvis on 09/04/2009 - 02:14 pm.

    @Thomas

    Thank you for not trying to explain anything to anyone – but then going ahead and doing it anyway.

    It must be exhausting to bring up the same half-truths, unproven theories and lies time after time. (Thank goodness for cut-and-paste.)

    If you read blogs and newspapers beyond those of the usual right-wing suspects, it should be quite apparent that it’s not “Mainstream America” that’s driving this socialist hysteria or the drive against Obama’s speech to our children or the slanderous diatribes against anything thought to be “liberal.” It’s well-meaning but misinformed people like you. (Full disclosure – I’ve voted for both Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates over the past 32 years. I consider myself independent, although the current political discourse in this country is making me feel more and more liberal.)

    Your group’s win-by-any-means approach to politics is antithetical to the democratic process. Free speech is welcomed. Incessant lying, twisting of facts and misinformed opinions get so incredibly annoying that those of us that employ common sense and take it upon ourselves to look objectively at both sides of the story (I’m also a much-too-frequent listener to Sean, Glenn, Rush and the rest of the lot) grow weary and simply chose not to engage.

    There are good arguments to be made for several tenets of the conservative movement – smaller government and all – but you do your cause harm to continue to tread over the same worn, ridiculous claims day in and day out. No one’s liberties are being destroyed. No one’s freedoms are being taken away. No one’s trying to brainwash our kids.

    Time to take a step back, Thomas, and use a little objectivity. A calm, rational discussion around proven facts will help move this country forward. You need to tune out talk radio, turn away from FOX and think FOR YOURSELF what it means to be a real American – according to what our Founding Father’s wrote, not according to what Rush Limbaugh is telling you to think.

  18. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 09/04/2009 - 02:18 pm.

    So when it is a Democrat in the White House, he is, all of a sudden, “PG” rated by parents.

    But, strangely, these same fanatical parents may be losing out in the end. Now, the kids will be even more eager to hear what the President has to say to them that is so uncool to their parents.

    The kids will rule in the end!

  19. Submitted by Jeffrey Rapp on 09/04/2009 - 02:40 pm.

    Indoctrination????? You have to be kidding me. When was the last time you asked your kid: “What you did in school today?” you’ll get the same answer…..”Not much”, “I don’t know”, at the most maybe a grunt.
    If President Obama can motivate my kid to a point where they would be interested in a discussion about policy, it would be a miracle!!!!!

  20. Submitted by Elaine Frankowski on 09/04/2009 - 03:46 pm.

    How sad that political paranoia may prevent some school children from hearing the elected leader of the nation talk about “the value of education and the importance of staying in school.” President Obama, renowned for his communication skills, may encourage students who were about to give up on school to give it another chance, and inspire others to put extra effort into their studies this year.

    Since some are assuming, before the fact, that the President will deliver a political message I allow myself to assume that his message of encouragement will tell students how important an eduction is to them and to the nation that benefits from the contributions that educated people make to a society. I will also allow myself to imagine how inspirational it will be to all students to know that the nation deems education important enough to mark the opening day of school with a presidential message.

    As the ceremonial as well as political leader of this nation it is part of President Obama’s job to promote our nation’s values, among which are education for all children, as promoted by “no child left behind” and to introduce the new and valuable idea that a good education is the responsibility of the student as well as the teacher and the school. Get a grip folks; let the President do his job.

  21. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/05/2009 - 12:09 am.

    It might help if the media didn’t treat this and other outbreaks of paranoia and rage as if they were spontaneous reactions to White House or Congressional actions.

    They should be described as results of the far right’s organized, well funded, deliberately fomented disinformation and fear-inducing propaganda that they are. On page one.

  22. Submitted by Welna Welna on 09/05/2009 - 09:10 am.

    How sad that parents would be afraid to have their children listen to the President give a speech. What a great opportunity at the supper table that night to discuss what the President said and what we may have agreed or disagreed with.

  23. Submitted by Steve Nagel on 09/06/2009 - 10:07 am.

    Sad, scared people, afraid and angry about the last election. Just listen to Fritz Knaak on TPT’s Almanac this week, stirring the pot.

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