HRC Blog

GUEST POST: “Back to School: How to Make Progress in Your Local School System – Part 3 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 Three of Four By David S. Fishback In early spring of 2005, the people leading the group that was unsuccessfully attempting to whip up public opposition to the Montgomery County, Maryland, school system's plans to pilot health education revisions – including some simple, factual statements about sexual orientation – had publicly stated that they would not try to use the courts to advance their agenda.  This turned out to be a lie and a diversion.  Just days before the curriculum revisions were to be piloted in six county schools, CRC and PFOX, through Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel, filed a 43-page complaint in the federal district court seeking a temporary restraining order to halt the piloting. The complaint was rife with factual misrepresentations about the revisions and the applicable law. With only a few days to respond, the Board of Education was caught flatfooted and the judge, who was also a Baptist minister, granted the order, buying into both the misrepresentations and the incorrect legal arguments.  The most notable error was the unprecedented idea that the United States Constitution required all sides of any dispute to be presented in curriculum. But rather than fight the lawsuit – which, given the judge's reputation for being very slow to issue final decisions that could be appealed, would have tied things up in expensive litigation for years – the Board of Education scrapped the curriculum revisions, dismantled its Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development – including both the supporters and the opponents of the revisions – and settled the case by agreeing to appoint representatives of CRC and PFOX to the reconstituted Committee while reserving its right to make curriculum decisions. In another place and time this might have been the death knell for the revision effort in the face of the ferocious attack, but here the community regrouped.  The previous committee vice chair, a pediatrician, arranged with the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to provide expert consultants to the school system to develop a new curriculum. The Superintendent accepted the offer.  The Board appointed a new advisory committee, which, in addition to the mandated CRC and PFOX representatives, added very well qualified members – including members nominated by Metro DC PFLAG and Teachthefacts.org – and notably, a new chair – a respected pediatrician who was also trained as a lawyer. The previous chair shared his experiences of the previous years, including the earlier materials PFOX presented and the rebuttals. As the process unfolded, the candidates in the next Board of Education election who publicly supported the revisions were elected by substantial margins. All letters to the editor in local papers from CRC and PFOX were responded to immediately with letters rebutting their assertions. The previous committee chair did a number of radio and television show debates, as well as presentations on local and national programs supporting the reform efforts.  Teachthefacts.org made similar media appearances and provided a stream of analysis on a blog that helped keep the wider community informed. Having concluded that the biggest mistake in 2005 was the failure to anticipate a lawsuit filled with factual and legal misrepresentations, Metro DC PFLAG – working with Teachthefacts.org, National PFLAG, Lambda Legal, and attorneys from the law firm of WilmerHale – began to develop a comprehensive defense and established a working relationship with the school system attorneys.

The new revisions, rather than simply including a few basic statements about sexual orientation as had been done in 2005, now covered two entire classroom periods and went into great depth on the challenges faced by LGBT students, and drew on statements from the American Psychological Association and a textbook developed for the Los Angeles County School District. When the Board unanimously voted to pilot the new revisions in January 2007, CRC, PFOX and a group calling itself the Family Leader Network asked the state superintendent of education to block the piloting as the federal judge had done in 2005. This time our side was ready, and both the school system and Metro DC PFLAG filed effective, comprehensive arguments in opposition to the CRC/PFOX/FLN request.  In March 2007, the state superintendent denied the request.  The opposition then asked the State Board of Education to block the curriculum, using the same arguments they made in 2005. In June 2007, the County Board of Education, following the piloting, approved the curriculum revisions for full implementation with the new inclusion of a specific provision allowing teachers to explain, in response to questions, that being gay is not an illness.  Later that month, the State Board of Education rejected the CRC/PFOX/FLN request without a single dissenting vote. The opposition – now represented by the Thomas More Legal Center – brought suit in Montgomery County District Court, but the Court resoundingly dismissed the claims in January 2008. Implementation went smoothly.  The health education courses dealing with human sexuality had always been opt-in courses under state law.  In other words, students could only take the courses if their parents chose to let them participate.  

In the past, the opt-in percentages typically were in the upper 90% range.  This did not change with the implementation of the revisions discussing sexual orientation.  In the 2008 elections, as in the 2006 elections, Board of Education candidates who publicly supported the revisions were elected by large margins. In 2009, the school system guidance offices were directed to use Just the Facts, the publication from the American Psychological Association discussed in the first blog in this series, as a principal resource along with other materials, including the excellent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Guidance for the Clinician on Sexual Orientation, from PEDIATRICS, Vol. 113, No. 6 (June 2004), which can be found here. There is still more work to do.  Last winter, PFOX distributed flyers among some county high school students touting the discredited reparative therapies for changing one's sexual orientation.  While the materials in the guidance offices refute this dangerous snake oil, the curriculum currently does not address this issue.  Efforts are being made to have this omission corrected.

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 can be reached at FishbackPFLAG@gmail.com

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