UPDATED School board okays LGBT lessons on 3-2 vote
The school board approved elementary school lessons designed to halt anti-gay bullying and harassment by a 3-2 vote on Tuesday night, capping a two-year process that one trustee said was the most divisive she’s experienced in her seven-plus years on the board.
In addition to the lessons, which would be taught starting this fall, district officials will put together a curriculum guide in an effort to prevent harassment of students based on race, religion and other factors. And Superintendent Kirsten Vital said the district will review Alameda Unified’s current anti-bullying curriculum to make sure it is meeting students’ needs.
Supporters said they’re glad that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people and their families will have the visibility they said they’ve lacked in Alameda’s public schools, while opponents said they will explore a lawsuit to halt the lessons.
“I think that my children will be very proud that their parents have a voice and that they are part of this community. And they will go to bed happy tonight,” said Sean Cahill, the parent who served on the school district committee that put the curriculum together.
Kerry Cook, a parent who opposes the lessons, said she thinks opponents of the plan were successful in getting the district to make significant revisions in the lessons. Still, she said she thinks the district was dishonest about its reasons for putting together the curriculum and that it doesn’t reflect the wishes of the majority of parents.
“We have a single-issue curriculum that advocates for one perspective on homosexuality that is not supported by the majority of Alameda,” Cook said.
Tim LeFever, who sits on the boards of two Sacramento-based groups that turned out to oppose the lessons, said they will be talking to parents about a possible lawsuit to stop them.
“Clearly, there’s precedent value in this,” he said, adding that he fears other districts could institute similar lessons.
But the Rev. Laura Rose, who serves on the Alameda C.A.R.E. committee that supports the curriculum, said she hopes to help build bridges between supporters and opponents of the lessons here on the Island.
“It’s wonderful the curriculum has been adopted. But obviously, we have a long way to go to build community in Alameda,” Rose said.
School district officials said they put the lessons together to help teachers deal with a problem they didn’t have the tools to confront, and also in an effort to increase the visibility of a group of people that they said had none in the district’s schools. They said people of other races, religions and family structures are represented in the books and lessons taught at Alameda schools.
Opponents of the lessons, who showed the board a petition they said had 468 signatures from people who don’t want them taught, said they think it’s illegal for the district to teach the lessons without allowing parents the chance to opt their children out if they don’t approve. And they threatened lawsuits and recall petitions if the board said yes.
They also said the lessons weren’t inclusive enough of other groups, and they asked the board to set up a task force to come up with lessons that more people can agree on. They said the district was failing to properly address anti-Muslim bullying and that its elementary schools lack lessons on prominent African American historical figures.
“Racial bullying is more than double that of any other group. Shouldn’t that affect your priorities?” said the Rev. Dion Evans, a parent and senior pastor of Chosen Vessels Christian Church. “If you fund this, you are proving that the Alameda Unified School District has given up on black children who are teased, bullied and marginalized beyond other groups.”
Supporters said that anti-gay bullying begins in elementary school and that the lessons are needed to combat it. They said similar lessons have been successful in other school districts. And they, too, raised the spectre of lawsuits, brought on behalf of children who are targets.
Brian Harris, a 16-year-old sophomore at Alameda Community Learning Center who is gay, said he and other gay students have faced a litany of slurs at school. He said it’s driven some students to stop trying in school and others to “just give up on life.” And he wants it to stop.
“Some members of the community have said that this curriculum is giving special rights to gays and lesbians. If this is true, should we stop teaching about civil rights, because it gives special rights to African Americans? Should we stop teaching about the Holocaust?” Harris said. “Students have a right to know that LGBT people exist, and that they are people with the same dreams and desires as everyone else.”
Trustees Tracy Jensen, Ron Mooney and Nielsen Tam voted to approve the curriculum as district officials presented it, after school board President Mike McMahon said he would vote no unless it contained an opt-out provision for the coming school year. (McMahon later said that based on the board’s vote, he would support the curriculum and would work to help implement it.)
“It’s been a long journey in regards to building an inclusive community. Apparently, we need to continue having this dialogue. But I feel we need to begin somewhere,” Tam said.
Trustee Patricia Spencer said she didn’t think the lessons were inclusive enough, and that she feared they would lead to increased bullying and harassment of students whose religious beliefs don’t square with what will be taught.
“We’ve got an achievement gap for our African American students. We’ve had African American speakers as well as those from other communities. We’ve heard we do not have curriculum that specifically goes to bullying of those protected classes. What message does that send to our African American students?” Spencer said.
Spencer and Mooney exchanged words over the impact the lessons could have on students whose religious views might not square with what’s being taught – an exchange that spilled out into the audience.
“Are we not saying to the Muslims and the Christians and the other children that come out against this is that their beliefs are wrong?” Spencer asked.
“You can have your own beliefs, but that is something that should be taught at home,” Mooney said.
“It’s the same for LGBT. It should be taught at home,” Evans, the pastor, retorted.
After the vote, Jensen offered a strongly worded statement in favor of the lessons.
“We are not telling anyone what to think. We are letting children know that gay people exist and they deserve to be treated with respect, regardless of whether or not you believe that homosexuality is acceptable,” said Jensen, who said this is the most divisive and contentious issue she’s faced in more than seven years on the school board.
More than 200 people showed up to the meeting Tuesday, prompting public safety officials to ask dozens of people to leave the overflowing council chambers at City Hall for an overflow room down the hall. More than 400 people attended the board’s public hearing on the plan two weeks ago, prompting the board to continue the hearing the following Monday in an effort to accommodate those who were turned away.
The district received e-mails from nearly 800 Alameda residents, with 375 for the lessons and 405 against. McMahon said he personally has gotten more than 1,500 e-mails on the subject.