Thursday, February 21, 2013

Board Policy Committee Meeting - February

I want to start by saying that our Board of Trustees comprises nine people who spend time and money to be elected to a four-year commitment - potentially longer if they seek another term.  During those four-plus years they spend quite a few late nights in meetings each month, many of them after a full day of work, in an effort to make the best possible choices to positively shape the education of tens of thousands of students.  In a district this size, they must receive a slew of letters, emails, and telephone calls.  They certainly receive ridicule.  What they don't receive is one red cent.  They are volunteers, and as a mom of AISD students, I state with complete honesty and no attempt to win their favor (I don't imagine they have time to read this blog, anyways), that I appreciate their service.

That said, bureaucracy sucks.  Dealing with this issue has been like trying to get a health insurance company to cover something they're supposed to cover when they see the possibility that they could wriggle out of it.  Nonetheless, the committee met last night and on this issue alone, they spoke for over an hour. They want more information before moving forward, and if I'd been told that in an email (or on Facebook), I would totally think it was just a filibuster move.  But I was there, privy to the conversation and attitudes, and I truly believe that they simply want to get it right this time.  Administration ran the now-rescinded regulation by the Board Policy Committee last fall (different members then), and there were no objections to it at that time.  This time, this committee wants to give it due diligence.

At least a trustee clarified early on that they would not be making a decision that night.  So I tempered my expectations.  

Not that I'm not a little crushed.  This has been exhausting.  I'm ready for some relief of the anxiety it has caused. What I wanted to happen would have sounded a little like this:

*******************************made-up conversation*********************************
Lori Moya: The first item on the agenda is breastfeeding.  It's clearly time to adopt a board policy.

Gina Hinojosa: I agree.  I've had to breastfeed my baby at school.  A mother deserves to be able to participate in her school-aged child's life while still meeting her baby's needs.

Cheryl Bradley: Dr. Carstarphen prefers to handle situations on a case by case basis.  Mr. Waxler suggests we clarify that the district will have to send a mother to a private room if her breastfeeding is a distraction from the teaching and learning environment.

Ann Teich: Breastfeeding isn't a distraction, people reacting negatively to breastfeeding is a distraction.  We have proposed language here from Central Texas Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition and Keep Austin Nursing in Public, and I think it's just what we need.

Cheryl Bradley: We really do need to show that we support breastfeeding.  It's a public health issue.

Gina Hinojosa: As a lawyer, I think this language is spot on.

Lori Moya: All in favor of adopting this language as our policy, say aye.

Lori Moya, Gina Hinojosa, Ann Teich, Cheryl Bradley: Aye!
***********************this did not happen - it's just a fantasy******************************

It occurs to me that Mel Waxler, the Chief of Staff and top legal adviser, has a tremendous amount of power.  Here we are essentially going over his head to the Board of Trustees, and there he is, at the table for this meeting, being consulted and seeming to have more influence than any other single person.

Thankfully, he has some experience with breastfeeding and appreciates that there are benefits.  It's not like we're dealing with someone who completely devalues it.  But, and maybe it's because he's a lawyer, he seems to see so very many shades of gray. 

Mr. Waxler reported that most districts, according to his in-house counsel group, handle any breastfeeding issues on a case by case basis, as the Superintendent wants to do.  He was saying that if there is a substantial disruption as a result of - and here he paused to search for a word, and Lori Moya said "as a result of a mother breastfeeding her baby?" and winked at me! - before Mel went on to say something about differing philosophies or opinions or something.

His concern seems to be that there are opposing views on the propriety of breastfeeding in public, and that allowances for those differing views, that "diversity of opinion," must be a part of a policy if one is written.  That's not a quote, just my understanding of his position; I could be mistaken.  Throughout this whole post, these are only my perceptions of where everyone stands and how they feel.  I will not intentionally misrepresent anything, of course - I am doing my best to be as accurate as I can.

Here's the thing about people who are opposed to breastfeeding in public: it's a prejudice. 

From Wikipedia on prejudice: "It can also refer to unfounded beliefs and may include 'any unreasonable attitude that is unusually resistant to rational influence.'"  I don't know how "my baby needs to eat" couldn't qualify as rational influence, before you even get into all of the health benefits of breastfeeding, and the myriad other justifications for feeding a hungry baby when and where he is hungry.  

But this realization, that a policy written to respect the views of others is in fact respecting the prejudice of others - this was not my realization, it was that of the amazing and wonderful Marianne Baker, shared with me after the meeting.  Thank goodness for that, because if it had occurred to me, it would have been one more thing to bite my tongue over as I sat in a chair along the wall and listened, unable for most of the meeting to comment.  

As I sat holding my tongue, I took notes when I wasn't nursing Bellybean, who hadn't napped well during the day.  Adam held him much of the time, and took him into the room outside of the conference room when he got very vocal, so I was able to pay attention.  But this whole post may be very disjointed as I try to address all of my notes.  So, let's see...

Luckily, we have at least three of the four women on the Board Policy Committee who have breastfed their babies and who are supportive of breastfeeding.  So there's that.

TASB, the Texas Association of School Boards, has apparently recommended addressing breastfeeding concerns on a case by case basis, and expressed a preference for a regulation (generated by administration) over a policy (adopted by the board).  Which stinks because we really want TASB to take a pro-breastfeeding stand.  TASB has as a resource a collection of policies that school districts can use, so we really want one day (soon) for TASB to have a good breastfeeding policy. 

There was a lot of talk about the potential for a mother breastfeeding to cause a substantial distraction or disruption to the teaching and learning environment.  Uh, no.  A mother feeding her baby is not a distraction.  Another person's reaction to breastfeeding may be a distraction or disruption. 

Mr. Waxler quoted a court case, someone versus Forth Worth - "The predominant interest of the school is to educate its students.  If a particular type of conduct has the effect of disrupting the learning atmosphere it should be subject to regulation."  (I think I got the quote right - Bellybean was "talking" towards the end.)

So he wants language (which is stigmatizing) to address the idea that breastfeeding could be a substantial disruption.

And what is considered a substantial disruption?  I still don't know.  There was talk of upbringings and opinions of teachers, parents, and students.  But other than parents yelling, I don't know what counts.  I do know Mr. Waxler feels that if a teacher is so uncomfortable that she is driven to distraction, that may constitute reason to remove a nursing mom from her older child's classroom.

But what if we were to replace the word "nursing" with some other word or phrase?  Vegan, tattooed, pierced, smelling strongly of some spice or perfume?  Gina Hinojosa said there all sorts of examples where you wouldn't allow that exception.  The one she gave was someone who might be uncomfortable with people who speak Spanish in front of them.  She also spoke of gender inequities and our biological status and can I just say I love Gina and am proud that I voted for her?

Nursing mothers are not a protected class.  But what if we replaced the word "nursing" with some adjective describing a mother's age, race, national origin, religion, etc.  We certainly wouldn't be having this conversation about a teacher's comfort level, and we wouldn't be considering appending a supportive policy with a caveat about distraction. 

Now thankfully, Mr. Waxler said that a complaint alone is not dispositive of having to ask a mom to go to  a private room (as was the case in my situation, which was defended as a long-standing practice - so we are moving the needle). If a complaint was made, a principal would have to show due dilligence, documenting whether and how students were impacted by the breastfeeding mother disrupting the teaching and learning environment.

But again, what IS a substantial distraction?  And more importantly than defining substantial, how do we define a reaction to breastfeeding as breastfeeding?  I mean, it's just crazy talk.  All these intelligent, well-meaning adults in this conversation and as I write about it I'm just overcome with how utterly ridiculous it is.  When I am feeding my baby, I am not responsible if some yahoo in the cafeteria starts hollering at me to stop.  Now if I holler back, I'm responsible for that behavior, but the breastfeeding is not the problem.

So when is breastfeeding the problem?

Even if people are uncomfortable with a mother who may not cover when nursing (which may not be in keeping with societal expectations but is not illegal), or with a mother who nurses a baby older than is the social norm (which would include anyone following the World Health Organization's recommendation to breastfeed for at least two years), the breastfeeding is still not the problem.  If a mom is nursing her toddler waiting to pick up her older child and no one either notices or cares, would that be a substantial distraction?  If a mother is in the back of the room at a class party, nursing her baby who refuses to remain under a blanket, and the top of her breast is visible but no one is any more concerned than they would be to see far more skin at a beach, is that a substantial disruption?  I am guessing that there are people who would be uncomfortable even just reading these questions, including administration.  And if that's the case - if Mr. Waxler feels so strongly about including a repetitive provision affirming the district's right by federal law to put a stop to disruptions because they want to control not the reaction to breastfeeding but the details of it - then the distraction/disruption concern is really just a red herring. 

There were other good questions, as well.  Gina Hinojosa asked what a mother can do if she feels she was not treated right.  Mel Waxler said that she can file an FNG complaint.  I don't know who would inform her of this, though...

There was the question of how to proceed.  No one seemed to think that continuing on a case by case basis seems prudent.  Someone pointed out that I was "a case."  There was much discussion of whether the breastfeeding issue should be addressed by an administrative regulation (which helps to effectuate a policy) or a board policy (which has higher authority than a regulation).  I am not sure if Gina said which she preferred, but she is very supportive of breastfeeding.  She really has had to breastfeed in her son's class, and sees this issue as one that affects a mother's ability to participate fully in her older child's life.  Ann Teich and Lori Moya both wanted, after the failed regulation, to have a board policy.  It would take away the gray area, and after the rescinded regulation it would serve to show where the district stands.  Ms. Teich was just terrific.  She felt that a policy could be just as simple as the law.  To which of course Mr. Waxler wanted to say it's really pretty complicated because the interpretation is affected by other laws...  

By the end of the meeting I think perhaps everyone would have been fine with a regulation as long as it is well-crafted.  Trustee Robert Schneider was in attendance, though I don't believe he is on the committee, and he expressed that he felt breastfeeding should be addressed by a regulation.  He seemed disinterested in the issue, or even perhaps disdainful of it, saying that if a policy needed tweaking it would have to come back to the board.  (Maybe I'm just over sensitive.)  Cheryl Bradley also prefers a regulation.  She is a longtime board member, and said that breastfeeding concerns have never come to the board before.  She feels it can be handled at the regulation level.  She asked me a few questions.  I wouldn't know how I had answered if Adam hadn't videotaped it (see below), what with the "Hallelujah Chorus" blaring in my head and all.  I felt her comments were supportive.  After explaining my situation, she said from what happened there, we shouldn't be here.  That I was in the lobby, I didn't disrupt the classroom, I didn't disrupt anything.  

And Mr. Waxler said that this was before there was a policy.  That you have principals who make judgement calls...

It preceded the policy, but it followed the practice.

I think my principal make the wrong call - obviously.  But I believe I understand why she did it.  She wanted to avoid conflict, her experiences have led her to feel that nursing in the lobby at a school is inappropriate, and because it has been a longstanding practice of the district to isolate breastfeeding mothers.  

So she was a little bit thrown under the bus by that statement. 

Which is weird, because Mr. Waxler has been gung ho in his support of her and the practice that has been followed for his decade with the district.  In fact, he went so far as to say, months ago, that the same practice was employed by other local school districts, UT, Seton Family of Hospitals, Travis County, and the City of Austin - most of which is patently untrue. 

Actually, I really appreciate that Mr. Waxler's opinion seems to have evolved.  But don't blame the principals when this is the advice they've been given, dude.

And then he said that my incident should not be the one determines what the regulation or policy is.  Huh? 

But moving on.  Mr. Waxler agreed that my situation should have been handled differently.  He said that if it had to happen all over again, if he was called for guidance, he would say "let me speak to the person who filed the complaint."

To give everyone props, leave it to the educators to recognize a need for training.  While businesses throughout the country regularly deal with the fallout of an employee making the mistake of confronting nursing mothers, yet fail to train their staff, I am proud to report that my district states an intent to train principals on how to handle any complaints about breastfeeding on their campuses.  Mel would like for the training, which will be done by Tracy Lunoff, the AISD School Health Health Coordinator, to focus mostly on the health benefits of breastfeeding.  The principals would be told that in general, the rule is that mothers are free to breastfeed wherever they choose, and if a complaint is lodged, the complaint would be acknowledged with respect and the statute would be brought to that person's attention.  Lori Moya said that she is an adult trainer, and while you can talk about things in a class, you have to role play situations.  So I'm excited that there will be a sensitivity training!  Just as soon as they figure out what to tell everyone to do...

Maybe we should have role played in the meeting to determine what exactly constitutes a substantial disruption or distraction.  

Bellybean was a bit distracting through most of the meeting, what with being super cute, and very talkative because he was overtired.  But, he was least disruptive when I nursed him...
They're still trying to balance the rights of mothers and babies against the prejudices of others.  Others who may have written letters, I don't know - but I know they haven't been at the board meetings, or the SHAC meetings, and they weren't there Tuesday night.  In an attempt to make sure no one feels overlooked, the possibility exists that a regulation or policy would address "one or two people a year" instead of just supporting breastfeeding.  And I seriously don't really think there are even one or two people a year causing substantial disruptions, though - I think it would be far fewer than that given that Mel Waxler only recalls one incident besides mine that has caused any kind of a ruckus.

So why not just let federal law cover the rare instance where a reaction to breastfeeding causes a substantial distraction or disruption?

Let's see, random notes here...  Please forgive me if I get repetitive and disjointed.  So much info to cover...  Mel liked the language "that is non-disruptive."  For a written policy or regulation, he likes the idea of saying something like "a mother who is breastfeeding in a manner that is non-disruptive..."  That's even worse than the whole caveat about creating a disruption.

SHAC was brought up as a possible resource.  I felt that SHAC's position was misrepresented.  They never really had an opportunity to come to a decision as a group.  In December they were asked not for a group decision but for individual comments - the overwhelming majority of which were pro-breastfeeding and against the rescinded regulation.  In January they were told that the district had rescinded the regulation and would handle breastfeeding issues on a case by case basis, and that no new regulation would be written.  So the perception was that there was no further role for the SHAC in the issue.  I was late (went to the wrong building) and missed the conversation, but in speaking to many SHAC members and reading the meeting minutes, it's clear to me that it's a mischaracterization to say they "gave it back to administration" and "did not take a stand either way."  The SHAC rocks, and given time to discuss it, I feel confident that they would support breastfeeding mothers and babies without stipulations.

The teachers' union, Education Austin, and the principals' union, will be consulted for feedback.  I know we have the support of the president of Ed. Austin, Ken Zarifis.  He has thanked us at the board meetings when we've spoken.  

A lot of talk went into determining a deadline for collecting this feedback before meeting again.  Everyone is busy, with the legislature in session.  This is where it was clear that most everyone wants to resolve this as soon as possible.  Ms. Teich and Ms. Moya in particular were vocal about that.  I loved when Ms. Moya said she wanted to put the issue to rest, and "The Donmoyers have been stressed for months."  Yes.  Yes, we have.  She asked if I'm okay at school, and I said, "I'm as comfortable as I'm gonna get."  I feed Bellybean wherever he's hungry at school.  I have a moment of feeling anxious and wonder if I could or should find a different location, but I buck up and feed him where he's hungry. 

They will try for the end of March.  Mel said that if any issues arise between now and then it would REALLY have to be a substantial disruption - whatever that means.  ;)  I'm being catty to be funny, to blow off steam.  But I do appreciate this attempt at a reassurance that moms can breastfeed during this process without fear of discrimination.  I think that's what he was getting at.

So I didn't get what I wanted on Tuesday, but progress is being made.  And I did get probably the closest thing I'll ever get to an apology from the district.  Mel said of the rescinded reg., "In retrospect, I don't think it was a good regulation."

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