Veterans Day speech shocks some students and parents
Some students and parents were surprised and upset a few weeks ago when the speaker at Forest Grove High School's annual Veterans Day assembly denigrated Vietnam War protesters and used TRUMP as an acronym to pass along success tips.
But according to Vice Principal Brian Burke, the school will address that issue after Thanksgiving break, when teachers will give students a chance to discuss the talk.
Burke said this year was the first year administrators have received complaints about the assembly's speech, which some people felt was highly partisan.
"My son listened to the speech and was absolutely mortified," wrote one FGHS parent on Facebook. "Especially regarding the presidential acronym."
The assembly took place Thursday, Nov. 9, in the FGHS gym and included performances of patriotic songs to honor local veterans of every war from World War II to current conflicts.
But guest speaker Bob Ferguson, a U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran, knocked protestors of the Vietnam War, calling them "entitled" and "agitators" and saying they "looked ridiculous."
Ferguson also criticized filmmaker Ken Burns's recent documentary on the Vietnam War. "Ninety percent of us that went to Vietnam, we came home, we got on with our lives and we were a success in every single kind of walk of life you can possibly imagine," Ferguson said. "And as near as I can tell, Ken Burns spent 90 percent of his 18 hours interviewing the other 10 percent."
Burns interviewed "a huge number of North Vietnamese, making the Americans look somewhat like warmongers," Ferguson said.
He concluded his speech by providing students with five tips for success, arranging key words in each tip to spell out the acronym TRUMP, referring to President Donald Trump.
"Reason I chose that, I wanted something good to come out of this administration," said Ferguson, adding "I'm not campaigning for The Donald."
Some students shocked
Charlotte Lumae first heard about the speech from a friend, whose daughter had sent a shocked text message after the assembly.
Lumae said she spoke to several other parents and nearly 10 students, including her own daughter, who felt uncomfortable, confused and/or disappointed by the speech.
"My daughter and her friends were upset by the acronym and the casual references to carpet bombing as something almost recreational," wrote a parent on Facebook.
"I can say this veteran's speech might be more appropriate for a VFW hall and his buddies who served with him," wrote another.
Lumae met with administrators last Friday, Nov. 17, to share her concerns.
Lumae's own father is a veteran so she's on board with an assembly that celebrates veterans. But she doesn't think guest speakers should be able to present political opinions unless they're speaking as part of a panel offering various viewpoints on these controversial issues.
Lumae listened to the News-Times audio recording of the roughly 25-minute speech (listen to the entire speech at http://pamplinmedia.com/fgnt/378522) and said she could relate to some of Ferguson's points.
Getting to know veterans as people and hearing firsthand the stories of war can be educational, she said, such as the story Ferguson told about being severely burned by a landmine. In his speech, Ferguson noted how the grisly reality of that experience differed greatly from the kinds of glorious, sentimental movie depictions of war so common these days.
But without more context and discussion, Lumae worries students will think Ferguson's negative opinions about Vietnam War protesters or his cavalier talk about carpet bombing another country — among other comments — reflect the opinion of school leaders.
She said the speech could give students the impression that "OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting) screens fake documentaries" or "protesting is a ridiculous act."
In addition, Lumae felt guest speakers should not be sharing personal opinions about any president.
After political and racial tensions that led to a high-profile walkout in 2016, the school worked hard to teach students how to respect others and address controversial opinions in a non-polarizing way.
So Lumae and others were confused about how and why a speech with such polarizing political comments slipped past administrators.
Burke said social studies teachers at the school are the ones who choose and invite guest speakers to the assembly.
But it's not school protocol to read speeches ahead of time and it hasn't been a problem in the past, he said.
Speakers are told to focus on thanking veterans for their service and on the importance of honoring Veterans Day, he said.
Burke and Principal Karen O'Neill wouldn't say what they thought of the speech, but they are addressing concerns and Burke said they would be thinking about how to move forward in the future.
He did not say specifically whether speakers would be given broad guidelines or asked to stay clear of controversial subjects and opinions on political figures.
Lumae points to Forest Grove School District policy:
"Since our society is based on the free exchange of ideas and diversity of political and social thought, it shall be the policy of this district to encourage unbiased, unprejudiced and scientific study of controversial issues as they arise as part of school curriculum," district policy states. "The teacher shall avoid indoctrination in his/her own personal viewpoint and shall not attempt to control or limit the judgment of students. The selection of materials, guest speakers and classroom activities in general shall be
done with studied impartiality for the purpose of fairly presenting all sides of an issue."
While the district received a lot of positive feedback on the assembly, administrators are willing to acknowledge concerns as well.
"It is my view that a lot of people left the gym with different perspectives and opinions on what our guest said at the podium," said Burke, who says he didn't receive much feedback from students, other than a few who were confused about whether Ferguson was a proponent or opponent of Trump.
"An opportunity for students and staff to sort through those perspectives and opinions through an educational discussion should be, and will be given, and this will only enhance this event and the experience of our students."
After Thanksgiving break, Burke said, assigned teachers will make sure students discuss the speech and some of the concerns brought up. That will provide larger context and a chance to share a variety of opinions.
Before break, one teacher had already led such a discussion, which remained civil although students disagreed with each other, he said.