Activist’s talk at Hilo High cancelled over controversy


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Hilo High School has cancelled a presentation by anti-war activist Jim Albertini following objections raised by the school librarian, parents and others.

Social studies teacher Joseph Watts had invited Albertini, who runs the Malu ‘Aina Center for Non-violent Education and Action in Kurtistown, to speak to several classes on March 6 and 8.

His presentation on participatory democracy, which he acknowledged was to include criticism of U.S. military policy, was to be held in the school library.

Librarian Amy Okuyama, whose son serves in the military, objected to the presentation, which she said would be one-sided, in a Feb. 15 email to Watts.

“If the presentation will be strictly informational with zero negative slants, I will be fine with having the speaker,” she wrote. “However, if it turns into a forum of Mr. Albertini’s personal negative views/examples to our students, I will be against library use for the subsequent presentations.”

On Tuesday, Albertini posted an email on his website from Watts notifying him that Principal Bob Dircks had gave him permission to hold the presentation despite the librarian’s concerns.

But on Wednesday Watts told him the school had rescinded the invite. He referred all comment to the principal.

Dircks said Thursday morning that he chose to cancel the presentation because the issue had become too controversial and threatened to overshadow any benefits.

He said he received about 50 emails, evenly split between supporters of Albertini and those who didn’t want him to speak.

The school offered students the possibility to opt-out and was also searching for a speaker to counter Albertini’s viewpoints.

But that wasn’t enough to settle concerns, Dircks said.

“A number of people have children that don’t agree with Mr. Albertini’s position,” he said. “Some said they don’t think their child should be at school.

“It was not meant to have that kind of impact on the school.”

In a press release, Albertini stated his topics would include the military presence in Hawaii, ongoing wars, use of drones, depleted uranium contamination and the “role of non-violent resistance for peace and justice.”

“(If) talking about peace and non-violence is ‘going to disrupt the school,’ we are in deep trouble as a society,” he wrote. “It says to me we have too much war and violence. There are Jr. ROTC programs and military recruiters in our schools. It’s time to make some room for peace and non-violence.”

Albertini told the Tribune-Herald that students are already exposed to pro-military views through ROTC programs and military recruiters, and he believes they need to be exposed to counter points.

“I’m very saddened in Mr. Dircks,” he said Thursday afternoon, adding phone calls and emails to the principal have not been returned.

Okuyama told the Tribune-Herald that while she disagrees with Albertini’s views, she would not have objected to him speaking to students if another viewpoint was offered.

She said she didn’t see cancelling the presentation as the best solution but called it a good call based on Dircks’ reasoning.

“I think a better resolution would be to have Mr. Albertini on and bring in another point of view,” Okuyama said.

Albertini said he would have been fine in having a “civil debate” over the issues with another speaker.

He said he believes the cancellation sends the wrong message to teachers who may invite guests with critical views.

“I think the message to teachers is to don’t invite people that don’t support the standard position of U.S. military policy,” Albertini said.

“I think it contributes to a climate of fear.”

Dircks disagreed, saying that other points of view are welcome.

“I don’t think it was (about being) anti-war or anything,” he said. “I think it was that Mr. Albertini has some baggage he is bringing with him that’s not easily to forget through the years.”

Albertini’s history of activism, which included a federal conviction in the 1980s for attempting to block a Navy ship from docking in Hilo, was raised by several writers opposed to him speaking to students.

Some questioned the educational benefit of the presentation.

John Orr, a former social studies teacher, wrote that the school would be providing a captive audience for Albertini’s views.

“You are choosing, I repeat, choosing to allow an anti-US foreign policy activist to use school time for his purposes; how does that meet state standards, sir?” he wrote, adding he would be taking the issue to the state Department of Education and governor’s office if the presentation was allowed.

Robert Gowan, the state coordinator for the Gathering of Eagles, also got involved and sent out an email urging others to write in protest.

Albertini, who also organizes a weekly anti-war protest outside the Hilo federal building, said he doesn’t apologize for attempting to stop the nuclear ship by jumping in Hilo Bay in 1984, for which he served a year in prison.

“I’m proud of that, to stand up for peace,” he said.

Okuyama also received her share of negative comments.

She said she received at least six emails from supporters of Albertini upset over her position, including one that said she should be fired.

Others said she was infringing on his free speech rights.

“I am for freedom of speech,” Okuyama said.

“I think that a compromise could have been made,” she added.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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