HRC Blog

GUEST POST: “Back to School: How to Make Progress in Your Local School System – Part 2 of 4″

The following post is a guest post from David Fishback, Advocacy Chair for the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG, with opening comments from HRC’s Family Project Director, Ellen Kahn:

As voters across the U.S. prepare to vote in primary elections next week, and coverage of the critically important November mid-term elections permeates every news channel, a reminder about the importance of school board elections to our community is timely. LGBT voters and our allies have a vested interest in the outcomes of school board elections, whether or not you are parents or have any connection to you local public schools.  Why?  Through state legislative enactment, school boards give local citizens the authority to develop school policy, rules and regulations, to hire school superintendents and to make decisions about curriculum and extracurricular activities for elementary, middle and high schools in their district.  School boards serve an important purpose and ensure that schools are meeting the needs of the students in their local communities, but when school board members are guided by ideology, they can block implementation of LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying programs, sexuality education and STI/HIV prevention programs. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition once said that he would rather see his candidates win 100 school board elections than the White House.  This four-part series by David Fishback provides deeper insight into the role of school boards and the ways in which we can all advocate effectively for positive change in our schools.

Back to School: How to make progress in your local school system - Part Two of Four By David S. Fishback The experience in Montgomery County, Maryland – a suburb of Washington, D.C. – provides a blueprint of how to make progress, as well as the game plan of the right-wing to derail progress, in presenting the wisdom of the mainstream medical and mental health professional associations regarding sexual orientation. In 2002, the elected Board of Education, on the recommendation of its Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development, instructed the Montgomery County Public Schools staff (MCPS) to develop revisions to the school system’s  8th and 10th grade health education curriculum to provide accurate information on sexual orientation.  Previously, teachers were forbidden to discuss the subject, unless asked a direct question and then they could only provide vague answers and then move on.  In order to facilitate the process, the board appointed a wide group of new members to the committee, which, by state law, had to review any recommendations regarding sexuality education, including representatives from the Metro DC Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and a Unitarian Church, as well as from the local Catholic Archdiocese and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) – a group about which little was known in 2002. In the summer of 2003, a working group composed of school health care professionals and both a progressive and a conservative member of the committee developed a draft of the curriculum revisions, which simply added a few items to the existing curriculum, noting the mainstream health professionals’ consensus on sexual orientation.  The conservative member of the committee (who represented the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution on the committee) presented material from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), but, after examination, all the other members of the working group rejected the conclusory assertions of NARTH, which were not supported by any valid data. When the staff recommendations were presented to the committee in the autumn of 2003, the DAR and PFOX representatives, along with one at-large representative who later founded a putative grassroots group to oppose the revisions that eventually emerged from the committee’s deliberations, vigorously opposed the recommendations and were given every opportunity to convince other members of the committee that their views were valid. What the other committee members discovered was that the materials presented by the DAR representative were filled with misrepresentations. [Note: As far as can be determined, the DAR has no positions regarding issues of sexual orientation.  In 2002, most members of the committee were appointed as representatives of various community groups.  There is no reason to believe that the person who used her DAR membership to get appointed to the committee was acting in any way as a spokesperson for the DAR.  She is designated as the DAR representative here for identification purposes only.]

In one instance, the DAR representative characterized the research of a University of Pennsylvania medical school professor as concluding that gay men were generally pedophiles and that children were “turned gay” by contact with such men. The chair of the committee read the entire study that was being cited, found that it did not say any such thing, and contacted the professor, who confirmed the chair’s assessment and authorized him to convey that to the committee.  The DAR representative also cited “studies” done by alleged objective researchers, but the committee discovered that the authors were not qualified experts and were publishing in non-peer reviewed publications that were simply fronts for outfits like Focus on the Family. By thoroughly examining their allegations, the committee was able to determine that all the attacks on the draft curriculum were bogus. The DAR and PFOX representatives audio-taped every meeting, presumably to provide evidence of bias in the event that they were unsuccessful.  Indeed, the DAR and PFOX representatives wrote letters to a local newspaper and the BOE accusing the committee generally, and its chair in particular, of unfair bias.  However, with every word of the meetings on tape, they were never able to cite any evidence to support their allegations.  

Over time, it became clear that the opposition’s attacks on any progress in this area would be rife with ad hominem attacks and unsupportable allegations. After many months of debate on the proposed staff revisions and some recommendations for improvement by the committee, the committee chair was assigned the responsibility of drafting the committee report to the Board of Education, recommending adoption. The chair offered the dissenters on the committee the opportunity to prepare a minority report. This offer was declined. The MCPS staff’s recommendations to the board, along with the committee report, were presented to the BOE in the autumn of 2004. In November it was adopted by the board unanimously.  Immediately, there was a onslaught of criticism on right-wing talk radio shows, attacking the recommendations as a “gay agenda” conspiracy and accusing the board of developing it without any community notice or opportunity for the consideration of dissenting viewpoints even though this attack was demonstrably false.  One of the dissenting members of the committee established a group called Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum (CRC) to oppose the revisions.  CRC held a community meeting at a local high school, where the rhetoric was so inflammatory that a group of parents (who previously had no association with LGBT issues) formed a rival group, TeachtheFacts.org.  CRC immediately grabbed the web domain name Teachthefacts.com to redirect any searches to the CRC’s website, which was named MCPScurriculum.com; yet another indication of the underhanded approaches it would take to the public debate. Then a very interesting thing happened.

Typically, people only write or call the board (or any government agency) when they object to something the agency has done. In this instance the calls and letters ran something like 5 to 1 in favor of the propose curriculum revisions. Some of this came from community mobilization, but much of it was purely spontaneous.  In March 2005, CRC sought to have a mass community meeting to oppose the revisions and could not find a single local public official to attend as a speaker. Instead, they brought in officials from Focus on the Family-related groups like the Family Research Council, Take Back Maryland, and Concerned Women of America (whose representative, oddly, was a man), and a notoriously homophobic state legislator from another part of Maryland to speak. A CRC spokesman tried to distance the organization from many of the comments made by the speakers, even though it was clear in advance the positions the speakers were publicly taking.  (It is noteworthy that one of the speakers, Family Research Council Vice President Peter Sprigg, has, in the past year, stated on national television, that he believes that consensual adult same-sex activity should be criminalized and that the United States should “export” gay people.) Through the winter and early spring of 2005, the CRC took the position that the Board of Education should negotiate with CRC about the revisions before any piloting (scheduled for May 2005) would start, and publically stated that it would not try to use the courts to derail the process.  Subsequently e-mails, that inadvertently were made public, revealed that CRC was surreptitiously planning litigation from the outset.  What happened next was a shocking set back, but fortunately, a temporary one.  More on this in the next installment…

The author is Advocacy Chair for the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG, and served as Chair of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Board of Education's Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development in 2003-05.  He may be reached at FishbackPFLAG@gmail.com

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