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Parents Use Online Petitions to Gain Support for School Causes

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From dreadlocks to school name changes, parents passionate about school-related issues have been turning to online petitions to gain public support and national media attention for their causes this week.

Some of the petitions on Change.org that generated the most buzz are:

• A 7-year-old Tulsa, Okla., girl was sent home from school because her dreadlocks violated the private school's dress code guidelines. Her father was interviewed on National Public Radio and his petition to allow Tiana to keep her hairstyle and return to class received 1,871 signatures.

• A Jacksonville, Fla., father is trying to gain support to pressure the Duval County Public Schools to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Forrest was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported this story. The petition is picking up steam with almost 86,000 signatures.

• More than 90,000 people are supporting a petition to reinstate a Catholic high school English teacher who was fired from his job in Glendora, Calif. Ken Bencomo lost his job after school administrators read a feature article in a local newspaper about his marriage to his longtime same-sex partner.

Change.org is a petition platform that allows people around the world to seek support for a range of issues. According to the nonprofit, there are more than 45 million Change.org users in 196 countries. Education-related petitions tackle practically every aspect of running a school including curriculum, school employee benefits, and budget priorities.

"We're like the YouTube of online campaigns," explained Mark Anthony Dingbaum, a communications manager at Change.org. "Anyone can start a petition about whatever they want."

With up to 1,000 new petitions launched on the site each day and roughly 25,000 a month, Dingbaum said education-related campaigns continue to be among the most popular on Change.org. And he said education-related campaigns are often the most successful, meaning they achieve the petitioner's goal.

Because education-related are traditionally local, specific, and have a "compelling personal narrative," Dingbaum said they generate more attention. He added that education-related issues are usually directed toward a clear decision-maker—a school board or principal—making it easier to have the petitioners' concerns addressed.

For example, parents and teachers from one of my local high schools used the site to petition the superintendent and school board to choose the assistant principal as the school's next principal. They were successful.

It's interesting to watch whether this public platform for parent power can influence local decisionmakers to change policies or simply have a change of heart. Some signatories offer thoughtful and persuasive arguments for supporting a particular cause while of course others show less class.

Marsha Oliver, chief of communications for the Duval County School District, told The Washington Post on Sept. 12 that the number of people supporting the Nathan Bedford Forrest High School name-change petition would have little influence. She said the process for changing a school's name is community-based with the final decision resting with the school board.

As more people turn to the Internet to shape and share their opinions and almost no one showing up for local school board meetings, it seems logical that education issues are debated online too.

See our full coverage of parent empowerment issues.

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