Parent barred from classrooms

School officials cite a mailed ‘threat’ over the internment study.

Police barred a parent from entering his sixth-grade daughter’s class after school officials deemed him potentially disruptive toward a controversial history lesson.

James Olsen of Fort Ward, one of the harshest critics of a curriculum on the 1942 internment of the island’s Japanese Americans, was met by three Bainbridge Island police officers when he arrived at Sakai Intermediate School Wednesday morning.

Officers presented Olsen with a letter from the Bainbridge Island School District superintendent prohibiting him from all district property except in emergencies.

“(Olsen’s) conduct has been a concern for staff, who feel harassed and intimidated by him,” Superintendent Ken Crawford said. “It’s our responsibility to protect the educational climate from disruption.”

Olsen left without incident, but his wife Mary Dombrowski withdrew their daughter from the school later that day.

Olsen said he plans to hire a civil rights lawyer and may keep his daughter at home while the curriculum is taught.

“I was treated like a terrorist,” he said. “This is a ruse to put the screws on a critic.

“The charge that I was a threat is a smear designed to be malicious, vindictive and an attempt to quiet what has been a very bad public relations story for the school district for the past year.”

Trouble over the curriculum began shortly after the the school received a $17,000 state grant in 2003 to teach sixth-graders about the World War II-era internment.

Social Studies teacher Marie Marrs crafted the two-weeks-long “Leaving Our Island” program, which cast a critical eye on the forced relocation.

Lessons included videos, field trips and, as was the case on Wednesday, visits from island residents who were interned during the war.

A small group of residents opposed the curriculum calling it an “unbalanced” account. Olsen and his wife led the charge, arguing that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order to imprison 120,000 Japanese Americans – including 227 from the island – was justified in time of war.

They also objected to the program’s linkage to modern debates over civil liberties, including the USA Patriot Act and the imprisonment of suspected terrorists.

District officials stood firm on the lesson. Sakai Principal Jo Vander Stoep said in September that the wrongness of imprisoning Americans based on their ethnicity is not debatable.

After a review, the school board also affirmed the curriculum earlier this year.

But as the school’s resolve hardened, Crawford said Thursday, Olsen’s criticism became more impassioned. School officials asked for police assistance on Wednesday in case the confrontation escalated.

“We didn’t know how the confrontation would go, and we’re not equipped to handle such a conflict if it becomes problematic,” Crawford said.

The superintendent was most concerned by a comment Olsen made in a recent letter to the district that stated: “This matter is not closed and you will see this evidence shortly.”

The letter was framed in an “angry context” in which Olsen referred to Crawford’s support for the curriculum as “preposterous” among other negative comments, Crawford said.

The restriction placed on Olsen came less than a week after Crawford had invited Olsen’s presence and participation in his daughter’s classroom.

“We encourage you to participate in the same manner as any parent would be welcomed at your child’s school and in the classroom,” Crawford wrote to Olsen on Feb. 2.

Olsen then received a letter from Vander Stoep dated Monday that rescinded Olsen’s volunteer participation in curriculum and related activities, citing the parent’s strong opposition to the curriculum’s premise.

“Through the course of events, it is obvious you do not support the curriculum,” she wrote to Olsen. “Your participation would not be in the interest of furthering the curriculum or in providing students a learning experience consistent with the curriculum.”

With his volunteer privileges revoked, Olsen said he intended to sit in on the lesson as a “passive observer.”

Dombrowski said she hoped her husband could attend the lesson to “adequately correct” what was being taught through later discussions with their daughter at home.

“We want our daughter to have a fact-based education, not an agenda-based education,” she said.

Crawford said it was not the first time the district has barred a parent from school grounds, including an incident last year in which an adult was prohibited from school grounds after he disrupted school events.

“We don’t do such a thing lightly,” Crawford said.

“We have the responsibility, and certainly the right, to protect students and staff.”

Police chief Matt Haney said the district had legally requested a no-trespassing order against Olsen.

“From a police standpoint, we were just there to keep the peace,” he said.

District officials also requested police presence at Thursday night’s school board meeting in case Olsen attended.

Crawford said he will consider lifting the restrictions on Olsen after the two-week course is finished. He said Dombrowski is welcome to attend classroom lessons.

Calling Wednesday’s incident “discriminatory,” Olsen pledged to fight on in court.

“I’m going to let a lawyer do what needs to be done,” he said. “He or she will drive what happens next.”

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