By Bill Petzold
CARO — A story about Schall Elementary School principal Susan Wright’s decision to not permit cupcakes decorated with little green Army men to be served for a student’s birthday went worldwide this week, generating thousands of online comments.
But nothing was said of the situation during Monday’s Caro School Board meeting, even though Casey and Angie Fountain, parents of the student about whom the story was written, were in attendance.
Casey Fountain said he wasn’t at the meeting to speak, only to represent himself and his family if the topic came up in discussion. But instead of an hour of impassioned public comment as some expected, attendees instead learned about the school’s efforts to improve student performance in the classroom, increase student safety by purchasing new surveillance and security equipment and improve communication between parents and faculty to better address bullying and other student behavior issues.
Fountain spoke with the Advertiser in the hallway outside Caro Middle School’s media center after the meeting, saying that the whole thing began with a venting post on his Facebook page and escalated from there.
“I don’t see (the school’s decision) as an anti-military thing,” Fountain said. “I just see it as disrespect for common sense.”
Angie Fountain took cupcakes to Schall for her son’s ninth birthday on February 28. Shortly after leaving the school, Angie said she received a call from the school saying there was a problem and the cupcakes hadn’t made it out of the office.
“I was thinking, ‘What, did somebody drop them on the floor?’ ” she said.
But the Fountains were extremely disappointed to find out that the issue was over the decorations, the little green Army men played with by American kids for generations and featured in several animated films for children.
The Fountains said that school staff offered to run out and purchase new decorations for the cupcakes, but the Fountains declined, saying the cupcakes could just be served without decorations and the cupcakes were served.
Caro Schools superintendent Bruce Nelson said that the decision to remove the toys from the cupcakes was the correct one according to the school’s policy regarding toys, but the situation could have been handled differently.
“We’re looking at changes in terms of addressing those kinds of issues,” Nelson said. “I’m sure that the (decision) of removing the Army men wasn’t the wrong one, it’s procedurally the way it was executed that I have concerns about.
“Bascially it wasn’t that (the principal) was wrong, it’s just that, from my perspective, it was a process that could have been more gently handled if we had been like, ‘Look boys and girls, this is why we don’t want them to be on cupcakes. It’s not because we’re opposed to soldiers; they’re toys, and we don’t want toys in the school. And when you have this cupcake, clean off the frosting and put it in your backpack and take it home. Don’t play with it here at school.’
“It’s not that we’re against them playing with them — just don’t play with them here at school, and we apply that to all toys. We don’t want them to bring electronic toys in, bring toy trains in, and we do provide (an explanation) that if you have a basketball you want to bring in, be careful because it’s your basketball and not ours and we don’t want it to be an issue where one student says ‘You’ve got a nicer basketball than I’ve got, so I’m going to steal yours,’ and now we’ve got to deal with that issue, and that’s primarily why we discourage toys in school, (because they distracting from learning), and you take (the toy) and now we’ve got a fight, and she breaks it and now we’ve got another issue. School is for school, and people put things on cupcakes — and they’re nice decorations — but they don’t think about the other side of it.”
The Fountains said that their son, for his part, didn’t let the controversy ruin his birthday. Casey and Angie Fountain said that instead of having just one little green Army man to play with, their son suddenly found himself with 30 of them. Angie said she washed the frosting off the plastic toys and her son spent the evening playing with them.
But the story has struck a nerve with many people around the country. Casey Fountain posted on his Facebook page that he was told that conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh had discussed the situation on his show, and on Tuesday he traveled with Senator Mike Green (R-Mayville) to the Michigan capitol building in Lansing to pass out cupcakes on the floor of the State Senate. He posted a photo Tuesday on his Facebook page of a birthday card for his son signed by 26 senators.
The story has generated strong emotion, reaching blogs around the country and in Great Britain and eliciting powerful and sometimes vehement response from commentors. Both the Fountains and superintendent Nelson commented that the details of the story were widely misreported by media sources.
“People we talked to … understood our point of view, but let’s face it: Talk radio is interested in sensation,” Nelson said. “Any sensational issues in schools are a target for that. I’m amazed at some of the responses; just vile responses. To me, it panders to the worst in us, but we live in a society where people can say that. That’s part of their freedom.
“(The media) politicized it, and once the story goes out wrong it just gets built on. The cupcakes were never confiscated, but the story is we took them away and the kid didn’t have his birthday party. Not true. We offered to put a replacement decoration on top of them, and there was no intent to disrespect the military — at no time was there that intent.”
Bill Petzold is the editor of the Tuscola County Advertiser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.