On April 13, I addressed the following letter to the members of the District 97 Board of Education:

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963.

Over the past several board meetings, many speakers have come before the board to exercise their constitutional right of free speech on the issue of leadership at Brooks. Most speakers made impassioned and polite pleas, and both sides of the issue were represented. However, two speakers came before the District 97 Board of Education and did not conduct themselves in a civil and polite manner. Their comments were rooted in the old politics of divisiveness, and the “us against them” mentality.

One speaker, Ms. W. Johnson, called Superintendent Fagan names, pontificated about racism and in a most self-aggrandizing and ridiculous comment, credited herself with helping Dr. Fagan see the light and mend his ways. She ended her disjointed, rambling comments with threats that an amorphous “we” would be all over this village. Another speaker, Mr. S. West, whose comments were primarily self-laudatory in nature, warned the board at the end of his meandering invective that he better not find a cross burning on his front lawn when he gets home.

As an Oak Parker, the comments of these two individuals deeply offended me; I ask the Dist. 97 Board of Education to consider the following actions:

1) The drafting of civility guidelines for persons wishing to address the board during the “Public Comment” section. A set of courteous guidelines would in no way encumber free speech, but would make clear that comments designed to defame, insult, accuse, and/or slander members of the board, the school community, or community members at large will not be tolerated. Persons would be given a copy of the guidelines prior to their comments before the board to ensure their familiarity with the guidelines. Furthermore, I ask the board consider developing consequences (such as public censure) for speakers who knowingly and maliciously violate the guidelines.

2) The creation of a task force, formed in conjunction with village government, to discuss openly the issue of race in Oak Park. At some point in time, this multi-faceted issue and village strength must be addressed. We need to have open and frank discussions on shared community values such as civility, education, deportment, public discourse, and leadership. This task force should include representatives from all the diverse organizations across the village and should plan to hold several public forums.

Oak Park is a special community blessed with remarkably outstanding citizens of all races, creeds, and ethnicities. However, a handful of demagogues of divisiveness are dominating the media and the meeting halls of our village. These individuals are working tirelessly to disrupt, damage, and derail the hopes and dreams of those who are committed to an enhanced and enriched quilt of many colors in Oak Park. I believe that it is time for the forces of good to work just as hard to defeat the delegates of disharmony.

As good people, people who are among the best our village has to offer, I remind you of Dr. King’s words and your responsibility not to be silent in the presence of hateful words and actions.

? Jim Gates is a 32-year resident of Oak Park and president of the Oak Park Teachers’ Association.

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