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Boards sticks with internment lessons

Critics of sixth-grade “Leaving Our Island” curriculum claim lessons remain biased.

After six months of debate and intense media coverage, the Bainbridge Island school board gave its blessing Thursday to changes in “Leaving Our Island,” a civil rights curriculum on the internment of Japanese American residents – 242 of them members of the Bainbridge community – during World War II.

Board member Bruce Weiland praised the lessons for highlighting the “tension between the value of freedom and the value of security,” and for taking the moral stance that “the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, without due process, was an injustice and it was wrong.”

His statements brought applause from most of the 60 people in the audience who came to hear about changes to the sixth-grade pilot program at Sakai Intermediate School.

The controversy over “Leaving Our Island” arose last year, when Bainbridge Island parents James Olsen and Mary Dombrowski objected to the curriculum as biased, lacking context and encouraging negative value judgments about the current administration and the Patriot Act. The couple said it was unfair to second-guess the forced relocation of Japanese as wrong, considering the bombing of Pearl Harbor and government concerns over espionage at the time.

Although the changes in the curriculum were intended to address some of their concerns, Olsen and Dombrowski and a half-dozen other critics of the curriculum went away disappointed.

“The entire focus of my efforts and those of other parents and taxpayers over the past year has been for BISD to introduce accurate historical context to the course and to remove outright lies, distortions and ideological bias” from the curriculum, Olsen said.

“Clearly our efforts have brought diminishing returns,” he added, “since the curriculum...has neither the promised balance or the de-linkage from the biased examination of the U.S.A. Patriot Act and the war on terrorism.”

Several others offered softer criticism.

Bruce Martin said that while the curriculum was well done, he hoped it would illuminate the predicament that government officials face when threats are made against a nation and its people.

Several said they were baffled by the controversy, and wondered what all the fuss was about.

“I think there is a distortion about what we are asking our kids to read,” said school board president Susan Sivitz, “and I encourage members of the public who have not done so to read it.”

Sivitz said she found the curriculum fascinating and noted “it has elevated my admiration” for the staff who created it.

“I am very satisfied,” she said, “and I learned so much.”

Sakai Principal Jo VanderStoep and several teachers prepared a one-inch thick curriculum guide for “Leaving Our Island” and outlined for the board and the public how the lessons had been contextualized.

Prior to learning about Pearl Harbor and the internment, for example, students will participate in a simulation of congressional fact-finding missions in 1943. They also will review wartime newspaper articles and editorials, discovering that editors Walt and Mildred Woodward of the Bainbridge Review were a “solitary voice” against the relocation of Japanese Americans.

In addition to examining the internment’s impact on local Japanese Americans, the curriculum looks at how it affected the neighboring Filipino-American families who looked after the internees’ land while they were away.

A segment will also examine the local military response and the role of Fort Ward, and will include a trips to the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum’s World War II exhibit, as well as the library and its Japanese display and garden.

On the subject of national security and civil liberties, the students will compare and contrast the events of Pearl Harbor with those of Sept. 11, 2001, using “extremely even-handed materials” from the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Christian Science Monitor, the staff said.

Some critics said that the latter assignment was too complex for sixth graders.

“It’s way over their heads,” said islander Phil McCrudden, “and it ends up being propaganda for those who do not agree with the (Bush) Administration.”

But defenders of “Leaving Our Island” said they felt the charges of bias cut both ways.

Clarence Moriwaki said that the political stance of the critics indicate “it’s all about ideology...an agenda thing,” and he said he was glad that their opinions seem to be shared by “only about 1 percent” of the island’s residents.

“When this got picked up by the national media,” Moriwaki said, “people from all over the country started calling me, even from Seattle, saying, ‘God, what’s going on with Bainbridge Island? If it’s so racist, how can you even live there?’

“And the thing is, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one of the reasons I moved here was because of the legacy of Walt and Millie Woodward and the people of this island. If anything, this is the safest, most accomodating place I have ever lived.”

The “Leaving Our Island” curriculum will be taught for two weeks, to coincide with the observance of National Remembrance Day on Feb. 19.

It is funded with a $17,000 grant from the state Civil Liberties Public Education program, “to ensure that the events surrounding the exclusion, forced removal and internment of civilians and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry during World War II will be remembered.”

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