Bulletins, bans and backpacks

YOU WOULD think it would be a fairly simple proposition, but for school systems like Montgomery County it's a can brimming with worms.

Who's authorized to send fliers, invitations, meeting notices, newsletters and other printed materials home from school in those ubiquitous backpacks? And what materials are allowable in what might be called the Backpack Express?


The school system and the PTA, of course, need to keep in touch with parents. But what about the Boy Scouts, a local church advertising vacation Bible school, a summer camp run by the YMCA or Camp Good News, an after-school Bible club?

How quickly things become complicated!


Three years ago, Montgomery officials refused to allow the Good News Club to distribute leaflets to elementary pupils, even though they had allowed as many as 200 other groups to use the "backpack distribution system."

Montgomery officials ruled that the Good News Club engages in proselytizing, unlike groups promoting community services such as sports clinics. Lawyers for the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland, which represents the club, disagreed, saying the policy violates its First Amendment right to free speech. The U.S. Justice Department eventually filed a brief on behalf of the fellowship, and the case wound its way into the federal courts.

Early this summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed with the club. In a 2-1 decision, the court allowed the club to use take-home material to advertise the Bible study group while the lawsuit is pending.

Then more complications. Late last month, the Montgomery school board voted to reserve the Backpack Express for government agencies, PTAs, day care centers, sports leagues and the school system itself.

But that decision shut out the Boy Scouts, which is threatening legal action. Montgomery is bracing for "a few more rounds" of litigation, according to one of its lawyers, and the question of access to backpacks has become one of the most hotly debated in years in a county that loves nothing better than a good argument over First Amendment rights.

But don't think Montgomery is alone. I surveyed several districts in Maryland and elsewhere and found all of them grappling with the issue. A few districts - Minneapolis is one - have barred all outside groups from sending material home with kids. That includes nonprofit organizations such as the Scouts and sports teams that recruit through leaflets sent home with kids.

Howard County has guidelines that allow nonprofit groups, including churches, to send home material as long as they are not proselytizing. Baltimore County considers what can go home on a "case-by-case basis," said spokesman Charles A. Herndon. A deputy superintendent must approve the material, Herndon said, and an important consideration is whether it is "educational and moral."

On the alert in many districts is the American Civil Liberties Union. When it spots objectionable material in the Backpack Express, it will petition to send home its student rights handbook.


Carroll County has a detailed set of regulations, one of which allows principals to set up tables in their schools "for voluntary pickup" of "acceptable" material.

What's unacceptable? "Campaign literature, obscenities, advertisements for alcoholic beverages, drugs, drug paraphernalia, contraceptives, abortion services, sexual deviation, tobacco products, fortune telling, palm reading, mind reading, defamatory falsehoods, attacks on persons or groups or statements of discrimination toward race, culture, religion or sex," school officials there say.

The districts say the volume of material in the Backpack Express has become nearly unmanageable. "Everyone wants to get to the parents through the students," said Carey Gaddis, Carroll County public schools spokeswoman. And, of course, it's a free service.

The Montgomery lawyer, Judith S. Bresler, said some students get as many as 400 fliers a year. In a 180-day school year, that's more than two a day.

Yearning for a shake-up in Baltimore's schools

A quotation from the past:


"Placidity enshrouds the Baltimore school system like a benediction today. Under the benevolent totalitarianism of the present school administration, the work of educating the young of the metropolis goes on day by day and year by year with scarcely a ripple of discontent or adverse criticism."

-- Ernest J. Becker, city school official, 1941