IFAS | Freedom Writer | September 1995 | safeschools.html

Massachusetts school meets challenge

By Janice Doppler

During the fall of 1993, a Safe Schools Task Force (SSTF) was formed at Hampshire Regional High School in rural western Massachusetts, in response to a recommendation by the state's Department of Education encouraging schools to develop policies protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence, and discrimination. The program offers training to school personnel in violence prevention and suicide prevention; and offers school-based support groups for gay, lesbian and heterosexual students; and provides school-based counseling for family members of gay and lesbian students.

Then, in March 1994, a provision protecting students from discrimination based on sexual orientation was added to an existing state non-discrimination law. In its first year of operation the Safe Schools Task Force drafted a Mission Statement on Diversity and mailed a survey to parents before beginning planning programs. Task Force members also intended to survey staff and students. Top administrators voiced strong support for the program.

The act of informing parents and asking for their opinions triggered controversy when a small, vocal group of parents insisted the program was unnecessary and immoral, and voiced fear that parents' rights would be usurped. It seems strange that this fear surfaced in response to a simple survey asking parents about their attitudes and opinions.

Those in opposition to the program used many of the typical tactics suggested by national Religious Right think tanks. For example, they sent (and continue to send) a stream of emotionally charged letters to the editor, a tactic used to create the appearance of a larger group of opposition than actually exists. They claimed to represent most parents when, in fact, no group chose them as their representatives. They frequently demanded documents from the school administration which consumed large amounts of time.

They allege that SSTF plans were made behind parents' backs. They circulated the homophobic videotape, The Gay Agenda, among school committee members, and distributed information linking "the homosexual agenda" with bringing pedophiles into the school at school committee and other meetings. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics about youth suicide were called inflammatory and were countered with information from Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, an organization affiliated with Focus on the Family. The open-meeting law was used to challenge the legality of SSTF meetings.

Other tactics used by those in opposition to the program included misrepresenting what educators say, then criticizing the misrepresentations rather than the actual statement, and quoting background material given to teachers or planning groups, then repr esenting it as something intended for students.

Both tactics were used in a letter mailed to all parents in the school system by a group called Citizens for Responsible Education. For example, an administrator attending a Task Force meeting asked whether the program would be extended to the elementary schools. He was told it was a possibility at some time in the future, since there are students with lesbian or gay male parents in the elementary schools, but that it had never been discussed. That response was misrepresented as an intention to teach about homosexuality in the elementary schools without informing parents.

The letter also quoted background material given to SSTF members as if it were specific plans of the SSTF. In addition to this misinformation, the letter falsely charged that the Task Force was planning a "gender bender" week during which students would cross-dress.

Written and verbal attacks were leveled at the superintendent of schools and the high school principal because a Safe Schools training program at a faculty meeting was closed to the public, and at the health education coordinator, charging that she established a pattern of secrecy and deception in her administration of the Safe Schools program. In addition, a man claiming he was discriminated against because he was a heterosexual male filed a complaint against the school district with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Possibly the most difficult challenge to programs sponsored by the SSTF occurred when Northampton-based Gregory Hession of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based Religious Right legal organization, challenged the legality of a series of assemblies planned for students during which author Warren Blumenfeld was to speak about how homophobia hurts all people in the school setting.

Hession claimed that if homosexual behavior was promoted at the assemblies, the school district would be guilty of statutory rape. He threatened to file suit to request an injunction to stop the assemblies. His threat had to be taken seriously, since in 1992 Hession filed (and lost) a lawsuit for $3.5 million after a "safer sex" assembly at the high school in Chelmsford, Massachusetts.

At that point, it would have been very easy for the school committee to decide to cancel the assemblies since the small, rural school district could ill-afford to be involved in a costly legal battle. Instead of falling prey to the threat, the school committee held its ground. A litigation sub-committee was formed to deal with any legal issues growing from the Safe Schools Program, and a lawyer was retained. Hession did not file suit.

The school committee's strong stand made it possible to continue making the school safer for gay and lesbian students. Since the mid-May assemblies, there has been a marked decrease in anti-gay and lesbian name calling in the school. As the school becomes safer for this group of students, it becomes safer for all students who are different from the mainstream for any reason.

Janice Doppler is the health education coordinator for the Hampshire Regional School District. She is a member of the Massachusetts Health Curriculum Framework Development Committee. She is also a doctoral student in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.