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Originally published April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 11, 2008 at 11:53 AM

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Parents' concern: Is school trip to hear Dalai Lama appropriate?

Melissa Jones is a Christian. Patricia Gorham isn't affiliated with any particular religion. But both women have the same concern about...

Seattle Times education reporter

Melissa Jones is a Christian. Patricia Gorham isn't affiliated with any particular religion. But both women have the same concern about Seattle Public Schools arranging for their children to hear the Dalai Lama speak Monday.

"It's a public school, and we're having a religious leader come and speak to our kids," Gorham said. "While I think he has great ideas about compassion — don't get me wrong — it's a bit of the principle of the thing, I guess."

Their kids, both John Hay Elementary School fifth-graders, could be among 14,500 schoolchildren from around the state to hear the Dalai Lama's message of compassion at KeyArena.

The Dalai Lama is the recognized leader of Tibetan Buddhists and the exiled political leader of Tibet.

Gorham and Jones say they'll probably allow their kids to attend the event, but as they mulled over their permission slips this week, they questioned whether a religious leader can deliver a completely secular message, as school districts and Seeds of Compassion leaders say he will.

Would the pope, they wondered, be received as warmly and without question?

The Dalai Lama is "not here as a religious leader, nor is he here as a political leader in terms of the Seeds of Compassion event," said Patti Spencer, a district spokeswoman.

In 2001, the Dalai Lama's visit to Portland generated similar objections. Then, 9,000 students from Oregon and Southwest Washington were scheduled to attend a youth summit with the Dalai Lama, and several Washington lawmakers argued against the use of public money.

Seattle's Spencer pointed to research that shows that compassion and healthy social and emotional development in kids decrease bullying, increase self-control and improve academic achievement.

"Our feeling is that this is a great opportunity for students to participate in, learn more about, and have fostered in them literally seeds of compassion," Spencer said.

The district also received a few complaints from Chinese-American parents at Wedgwood Elementary School, Spencer said. In response, the district sent a letter to all Wedgwood parents explaining the apolitical nature of the event.

Jones said she appreciates the need for kids to learn about being compassionate. And she doesn't mind her kids being exposed to another religion.

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"The controversy in my mind is who's delivering the message," she said.

Becky Tilev, another Hay parent, thinks it's unfair for the district to tiptoe around her Christian faith, yet bus kids in to hear the leader of another religion. She also feels uncomfortable knowing the Dalai Lama will likely be introduced to schoolkids as "his holiness."

"He's not my holiness," she said.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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