Elementary • Chicken chain to provide birthday meals, sponsor spirit nights.
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The announcement in Dewey's Diary, the newsletter for Draper Elementary, seemed innocent enough: a local Chick-fil-A franchise owner plans to sponsor a school spirit night and provide catering for students celebrating birthdays during the school year.
But after a summer in which purchasing a chicken sandwich from the Georgia-based fast-food chain became emblematic of one's position on gay marriage, some Draper Elementary parents are questioning whether the partnership with Chick-fil-A could be construed as demeaning to children from gay and lesbian families.
Peter Pedersen, father of a first-grader and a fourth-grader at Draper Elementary, said he was taken aback by an email from school principal Kenna Sorensen explaining the program.
"I am really surprised and concerned that Draper Elementary would choose to partner with the restaurant Chick-fil-A at a time when that company has become a symbol for the Gay Marriage/Marriage Equality debate going on in our country," Pedersen wrote in an e-mail he sent to Sorensen and also shared with The Salt Lake Tribune.
The Chick-fil-A controversy exploded earlier this summer when the company's president, Dan Cathy, publicly objected to same-sex marriage, sparking protests and counter-protests at franchises across the U.S.
"I know that our school is not a partisan entity and is not involved in this debate in any way (as it should not be) but for many people, this action appears to give approval and endorsement of that particular political position," Pedersen wrote. "Additionally, whether intentional or not, I believe for many families with gay children or parents this may be interpreted as a very personal attack on them."
Sorensen wrote to parents that Chick-fil-A would help "recognize and reward" students, first by sponsoring monthly lunches with her for children celebrating birthdays. Her young guests will receive a four-piece chicken nugget kid's meal, a side of fruit, an apple juice and a prize. Waffle fries won't be a part of the menu because they don't meet school food guidelines.
The restaurant will also sponsor quarterly "spirit nights," where 10 percent of all sales made during a two-hour period will be donated to the school.
"I think this is an amazing and generous donation from Chick-fil-A," Sorensen wrote in the newsletter, "and we are only one of five local elementary schools that will receive this partnership benefit."
But others believe it may have unintentional political ramifications for the school.
Two parents so far have complained about the partnership, said Jeff Haney, a spokesman for the Canyons School District. He added Sorensen received a half dozen emails from parents who were complimentary of the incentive program.
Pedersen said he realizes that many Draper residents have no problem with Chick-fil-A's political statements, but said the school could easily partner with a business that isn't as controversial.
"It creates a negative environment if the school or the district is seen as endorsing or promoting Chick-fil-A, who is a poster child of the [anti-]gay marriage movement," said Pedersen.
Cathy told a religious publication that the company backed "the biblical definition of a family" and later said: "I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.' "
The issue drew special attention in Utah, where the dominant religion is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which opposes gay marriage. Crowds swarmed Utah's 15 Chick-fil-A restaurants to express solidarity with Cathy's views as the debate reached a fever pitch in July and early August.
Supporters of gay marriage also rallied outside some Chick-fil-A stores in Utah, with some same-sex couples organizing to share kisses outside the restaurants.
Troy Apolonio, who owns the Chick-fil-A franchise at the South Towne Marketplace in Sandy, said he has partnered with schools like Draper Elementary long before the recent Chick-fil-A debate. In addition to partnering with Draper Elementary, Apolonio's Chick-fil-A hosted a back-to-school breakfast for the district's PTAs and principals on Aug. 7, Apolonio said.
"If there's educational type of activities that teachers or administrators need incentives for, we love to provide a free kids meal or free ice cream cones something the teachers have to get kids motivated," Apolonio said. "I just want to be of support to the community. I have a passion for kids and young people, and the school system is a great way to go about that."
Apolonio said that this summer's Chick-fil-A national flap has not resulted in any push-back locally.
"We're Draper, Utah. If there's going to be any debate, there are so many people in Utah that agree with the perception that's out there with Chick-fil-A," he said. "Personally, I respect everyone's views and opinions. I hire people of all different beliefs and ethnicities. I'm in business to support the local community, the people who work for me, and my family."
Haney said in the past that Draper Elementary received $250 from Chick-fil-A proceeds made during a spirit night, which helped the school fund a computer lab. The district views the school's partnership with Chick-fil-A as it does with any local business that wants to offer support to local schools, he said.
"It's not a political statement on the part of the franchise," Haney said. "What the local franchise is saying is that we support local schools."
Pedersen, who attended Draper Elementary himself, said he has only positive things to say about his experiences. His respect for the school, he said, is why he wants to speak about what he sees as a troubling partnership.
"I know it's a great school," Pedersen said. "That's part of the reason I hate to see them unintentionally making a statement like this."
For now, the Canyons School District has no plans to change Draper Elementary's relationship with Chick-fil-A.
A school spirit night for Draper Elementary is scheduled for Sept. 25 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the South Towne Marketplace in Sandy, 10090 South State Street.
Ten percent of proceeds from sales made during that time will go directly to Draper Elementary.