Discord over free speech at Sausalito child-care center

Bill O'Connell's 10-year-old son has been spending much of his summer happily whittling wood and designing gadgets at The Planet, a Sausalito drop-in center for school-age kids.

But the morning of July 1, the boy, who is Jewish, begged his father not to make him go: He was upset by the presence of a sign on the grounds condemning Israel for the "killing of Arab children."

The Planet, a fixture in southern Marin located by the heliport on the north side of Highway 101, offers woodworking, electronics, beadmaking and an eclectic feast of ideas in an earthy environment for kids 6 and up.

But one parent says that feast includes some bitter ingredients that have rendered his child ill.

His son — normally "a real peaceful kiddo" — was in "great distress, crying and saying he didn't want to go" to the center, said O'Connell, a lawyer whose wife, Jan Gross, is Jewish.

The boy had complained to his father before that "the counselors had been pressing political views on the children, " according to O'Connell. But considering the range of counterculture views that carbonate the Bay Area, "I took it with a grain of salt."

But O'Connell's humor ran short on July 1. Stopping in the restroom before work, he found a placard that read, "A Jewish state in Israel means the killing of Arab children."

O'Connell went on to work and arranged for a friend to bring his son home "as early as possible." He also called David Kersting, one of The Planet's owners, to discuss his son's discomfort and his own anger.

Kersting told O'Connell the sign had been inadvertently left in the bathroom after a Gulf War protest, but nonetheless was a point of view that deserved to be aired.

"But it's also true that these are sentiments I've heard expressed by many Jewish friends," Kersting told the Bulletin this week. "This is not an extreme opinion."

Kersting also said part of The Planet's strength is encouraging a vibrant discourse.

The bathroom sign and the owner's reaction — combined with political harangues in The Planet's newsletter — soured O'Connell on the program. He began to feel "creepy" about the woodshop projects that include a template for a gun.

"They have other stands that I don't disagree with," O'Connell said. "I just think it is incredibly poor judgment to air them in a child-care center. Shame on The Planet for proselytizing to a captive audience of children. I'm pretty infuriated."

O'Connell contacted the Anti-Defamation League. After conducting its own investigation, Jonathan Bernstein, director of the ADL Central Pacific region, concluded the matter compelled action — particularly given the relationship between The Planet and two public school districts, Mill Valley and Sausalito, which he said subcontract with The Planet for afterschool care.

"I'm pretty concerned," Bernstein said. "I think it's serious." In a letter to Kersting, Bernstein wrote, "The school districts which you reach out to need to be made aware of your positions on these issues…Obviously, a district which is supported by state funds needs to maintain an inclusive posture in which people from every background are accepted and made to feel comfortable."

Bernstein sent copies of his letter to officials at the Mill Valley and Sausalito school districts, and to the state licensing board. However, school officials in both districts denied current ties to The Planet.

"They used to rent space from us years and years ago," said Barbara Kent, secretary for the Mill Valley School District.

The Planet is not licensed, state records show. However, its need for a license is open to question.

Centers that are part of a school district or a county or municipal parks and recreation department do not need a license. There are other exemptions for short-term programs and those servicing school-age children. Currently, a state official is looking into the matter.

"There are a lot of different factors," said Joan Hill, child-care advocate for the state Community Care Licensing Department. "They could be following the guidelines as they understand them to be and quite unaware that they are not exempt."

Kersting drafted a reply to Bernstein's letter, sending copies to Mill Valley and Sausalito school officials and others.

If Kersting dealt an ideological blow to Israel, he said he does so across the board to governments, agencies and industries whose actions affect children.

"I encourage everyone to represent their views, and we put out a quarterly newsletter to represent our own views. We have a terrific respect for everything Mr. Bernstein said in his letter. But if you look at the newsletter in question, you have to agree we are in danger of offending just about everyone," he said.

"I understand that it is Mr. Bernstein's job to take the most protective position, and I respect that," Kersting added. "We are nervous, a little, about a possible chilling effect" on the staff's freedom to express their views.

Controversy aside, The Planet offers one of the few drop-in programs in the area for school-age kids. "The Planet has been around a long time, and essentially it's an excellent program," said one mother.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.