This is the Life: What to do about Bountiful situation?

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Everyone has an opinion and no one, at least that I am aware, has a solution. And nothing has changed in the more than three decades that I have been in Creston.

Last week the Bountiful community was a popular subject in the news. Once again. This time the story was about the fallout from the closure of Bountiful school, leaving more than 200 students temporarily, at least, out of the public education system. Depending on your point of view, it might not have been a bad thing when the majority arrived in September to enroll in Homelinks, Kootenay Lake School District’s supported home schooling program.

The story of the Bountiful closure actually begins more than a year ago when the Fraser Institute’s famously flawed rating system put the school right at the top among all provincial schools. It wasn’t without a raised eyebrow that I contacted Bountiful principal Merrill Palmer to do a story about the recognition. He might not have been doing cartwheels, but he was no doubt happy to be recognized in such a way. I doubt any of our public school principals would have responded differently.

A few months later I ran into Palmer, whom I happen to like very much, and learned that he had been fired shortly after my story came out. We could only guess that Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed leader of many Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints followers, had taken umbrage at the school drawing attention to the part of the Bountiful community that he still appears to control, despite the fact that he is in jail for pedophilia.

With the respected Palmer given his walking papers, it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise that the school was closed outright this fall. There is no evidence that Jeffs is a great believer in education and some curious/bizarre/disturbing reports have been coming out of what is a now a very closed community of marriages being dissolved, men being kicked out and their wives and children “reassigned” to other men and families.

So now, for the time being at least, about 170 Bountiful students at least have a foot in the door of the public education system. It’s been a welcome challenge for the school district to accommodate these kids, not least because it now means that more teachers have jobs in the public schools than last year. From what I’ve heard, ancillary services at the Creston Education Centre, home to Homelinks, have been overwhelmed by new clients, but there has been a great commitment to accommodate them.

Sadly, while it might seem like a glimmer of hope to have all these students participating in the public system, their enrolment can only be described as tenuous at best. From all indications, they could just disappear as quickly as they arrived, at the mere snap of the jailbound, but obviously not muzzled, Jeffs.

Meanwhile, pundits from afar, and some locals, put up the usual argument that children should be forced to attend public schools, that polygamists should be prosecuted, that the community should be broken up and the members be integrated into mainstream society. I don’t have any philosophical objection to those arguments, but I also freely admit that I have no solution for the problem. Attempts to achieve similar goals with First Nations and Doukhobors weren’t exactly resounding successes and I’d hate to see us making the same mistakes all over again.

How do you prosecute polygamy without witnesses? It’s a problem that has dogged RCMP investigations over the years and there is no indication it has changed. How do you force Bountiful kids into public schools without risking having them spirited away to another location in the dark of night? Or without having to force other homeschoolers, who don’t want their kids in the public system for any number of reasons, to attend our schools. How do you break apart a community that, like it or not, has members who believe in the tenets of their faith, which they have a constitutional right to do?

I don’t have any answers to those questions, at least none that don’t involve some very ugly behavior and risk forcing people to further distance themselves from us, or worse, to feel that violence is their only recourse.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.

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