By Dennis Jensen Herald Staff
BENNINGTON — Saying their son was "silenced" by his teacher for talking about hunting in the classroom, the parents of a fourth-grade student at North Bennington Graded School took their son out of school and have taken their case to the local school board.
Jared Harrington's mother, Wendy Bordwell, and his father, Martin Harrington, removed their son from school with 10 days left in the school year and home-schooled the 10-year-old boy.
"We are aggressively pursuing Jared's right to free speech," Bordwell said.
The couple addressed the local school board Monday night to air their grievance.
Bordwell said in a telephone interview that she believed her son was "singled out" by Kathleen Backus, Jared's teacher, while talking about hunting with a schoolmate.
Bordwell said that, during snack time, Jared was discussing the recent spring turkey hunting season with a classmate when Backus interrupted the conversation, insisting that there be no talk of "killing" in her classroom.
Reached through a relative, Backus declined to comment.
At Monday's board meeting, Bordwell read from a prepared statement.
"I believe that Ms. Backus' perception of hunting and hunters have led her to treat Jared in an inappropriate manner, singling him out unfairly," she told the board.
"The breaking point for us, his parents, came when Jared was sharing a conversation during his free period snack time at school. He was talking with a friend about the recent spring 2008 turkey season. Both boys had been out hunting with their dads and Jared was asking his friend where he had gotten his first turkey.
"Jared's teacher covered her ears, trying to block the conversation, and singing 'la la la la.' When asked by another school employee about her odd behavior, the teacher claimed she did not want to hear about the boys and their 'killing.' The boys were left feeling that they were not legitimate hunters, but 'killers' in the eyes of an important authority figure in their lives," Bordwell said.
Jared "has a working knowledge of firearms, archery and the sport of hunting," Bordwell said.
In an interview, Boardwell said that while Backus told her and Jared's father "emphatically that she had no problem with hunting," her comments made it clear that she did, in fact, deplore sport hunting.
Bordwell said that after the incident at school, Jared's father approached Backus, questioning the teacher about her "reprimand" of his son.
"The confrontation ended with Ms. Backus demanding that Marty leave the classroom, screeching, 'I went hiking this weekend and saw a moose and a bear, and I will never tell you where they are because you might kill them," Bordwell said.
Bordwell suggested to the board that a decision by Backus to eliminate all free snack periods in the classroom, changing them to "working" snack time for the remainder of the school year, was designed to stop the flow of free conversation among Jared and the other students.
Bordwell said in the interview that the "working" snack time was designed by Backus to intimidate Jared.
"In this way, she would have control over any conversation," Bordwell said, "and we felt that kind of management plan would single Jared out among his peers. It was created and designed to silence him."
At that point, Bordwell said, it was decided to home-school Jared.
"And since we decided to remove Jared from school for the last 10 days of school, we've learned that the "working" snack time has never been imposed," she said.
After Jared's parents decided to take up the matter with the school board, Backus assigned 137 pages of homework for the boy.
"That led us to believe he was being singled out," Bordwell said.
Martin Harrington owns and operates Marty's Sporting Goods in Bennington, so Jared has been around firearms and sport hunting since he was a very young boy, Bordwell said.
School Principal Thomas Martin said he is confident the administration and the school board "can reach a reasonable understanding" among the parties involved in the matter.
"It's not a huge issue," Martin said in an interview. "Marty is a good kid and Kathleen is a good teacher. The focus is on the kid. We want to try to meet his needs. Kathy cares a great deal about kids. She's troubled a great deal about this."
Martin said the issue is neither "black and white or right and wrong. It's more complicated than that. It's brushing up against a number of things that are important to a lot of people and issues relating to the classroom. Emotions start to feed into it when people's belief systems come into play," he said.
Martin said he would not support any move that would inhibit conversations about any student's hobby, "as long as it is in the parameters of good taste."
After both sides in the issue have been heard, Martin said, he expects a fair solution.
"Obviously, I'd like to see Jared in school," he said. "It's obviously a concern for me. He's a sweet kid; he's a great boy."