Freedom Writer - September 1995
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
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 representing 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
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.
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