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April 9, 2014

Schools officials ask council members to protect students from overzealous protesters

NORMAN — People picketing at Norman Public Schools have disrupted the learning environment, school officials told city leaders Tuesday.

Parents and school administrators asked the Norman City Council to enact a buffer zone around schools that would allow freedom of speech but also would protect school children from being accosted by strangers and assailed by graphic images.

“It’s a safety issue,” Angela Calhoun said after the meeting. Calhoun has a child at Norman High and a child at a Norman middle school.

“There are graphic images,” Calhoun said. “They’re not asking me for consent for my minor child to see graphic images. I don’t get an option to protect my child.”

Superintendent Joe Siano said these types of protests are fairly rare. He said the school’s concern is about safety and disruption. Siano said there had been a significant event at a middle school recently.

Parents told the city council that abortion protesters carry huge signs with graphic images that are not age appropriate. In addition to picketing at Norman high schools, the group has targeted middle schools.

Mitch Randall, senior pastor at North Haven Church, said his child was videotaped when one of the picketers approached. The protester was standing in the right of way, but his child was on school property, which is owned by the state. The promotional video was posted on YouTube without their permission. After contacting YouTube, the video was removed, but it still may be used in other places without their consent or knowledge.

“The system is broken,” Randall said.

City council members said they want to balance free speech with the safety and protection of children.

Council member Chad Williams said he wants to approach the problem carefully and not abridge freedom of speech.

“This is bullying,” Council member Greg Heiple said. He asked if bullying rules could be applied to this issue.

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