The debate over same sex relationships now heads to California’s classrooms where school children are in the crossfire.
The history that will be taught to California’s schoolchildren is being written right now by school districts across the state. It’s a history that will include instruction on the economic, political and social development of California and the United States of “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) Americans.” Senate Bill 48 added this language to the California Education Code and went into effect a year ago.
SB-48 also includes the study of similar contributions made by Native, African, Mexican, Asian and European Americans as well as Pacific Islanders and the disabled. Not surprisingly, the contributions of these groups won’t cause the same stir as the contributions of the LBGT community.
John Bohannon, the director of Alternative Education with the Chico Unified School District, is coordinating his district’s guidelines and curriculum for the new law. It’s a difficult job because, as he puts it, the law is vague.
“The State has not provided specifics,” said Bohannon. “I wish we had more direction.”
He said, however, that the State will provide a framework for standards which will include recommendations to meet the new law.
But recommendations are not the same as requirements. The only requirement is that the contributions of the LBGT community be included in some form to California’s public schoolchildren. What exactly will be taught?
To what age groups will it be taught? How much emphasis will it receive? All of these questions are left to school districts.
Without a more direct compass, Bohannon will rely on a committee of principals, teachers, community members and parents, which is being assembled.
Bohannon says the make-up of the committee needs to be represented by a cross-section of people that represent different views on the hot button issue of sexual orientation.
“All sides need to be represented,” said Bohannon, who has already fielded a few calls from parents about the new law, all of which refer only to the LBGT provision.
Sides are already weighing in. Jodi Rives is in her 20th year teaching at the college level and is currently at Butte College in Public Speaking and Goup Discussion. She’s also an active member of the Stonewall Alliance in Chico. She says the legislation is absolutely necessary and too long in coming.
“I listen to the horror stories of violence and ignorance some of my LGBT friends and students have experienced locally at the hands of peers, educators, families, law enforcement, and others, and I know we need to demand change,” said Rives.
“Our community can--and must— do better.” Religious families who believe same sex relationships are sinful may take issue with this curriculum.
Rives calls this view “willfully ignorant of facts in the matter.” She calls those with these opinions “brutish and dangerous.”
“I do not want religious and/or theology as the basis for educational decisions made on behalf of my children or the children of this nation.”
Father Peter Hansen isn’t sure a religious or even moral argument is required here.
The rector at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church in Downtown Chico wonders if it’s necessary to preface the naming of every inventor, social contributor and elected official with a list of his or her particulars such as height, weight, sexuality, hair and eye color.
“Was George Washington the father of our nation because he had sex with his wife, or perhaps with other women?” Hansen asked rhetorically. “Do we need to know this?”
Rives says yes, calling heterosexuality the default position on all matters and people related to history.
“I think a concerted effort should be made to find those individuals who have been systematically eliminated from classroom instruction due to their identity or orientation and create opportunities for their inclusion,” Rives said.
Bohannon says the overriding concern is when these lessons will be taught to children.
“This is not specified in the law,” said Bohannon. “Currently Civil Rights issues are taught in both 11th grade U.S. History and 12th grade Civics.”
Parents of young children may find discussion of bi-sexuality and lesbianism pre-mature. Rives thinks any grade level should be part of the legislation, but within certain parameters for ages and styles.
“You aren’t going to interrupt Kindergarten circle time to have a lengthy lecture about Harvey Milk,” said Rives. “But if the class it talking about San Francisco history… (he) could effortlessly be incorporated into the curriculum.”
Hansen isn’t so sure.
“Has anyone asked the greats of history if this kind of disclosure is their wish?” he asked. “Elton John may make no secret of his orientation, but does every legislator, judge, actor, religious leader, scientist, inventor, social architect, doctor, general, writer, singer or guitarist wish this to be the leading description of his or her personhood in the mouths of school children and the general public?” asked Hansen.
Bohannon emphasized that the curriculum will unlikely include discussion about sexual orientation and lifestyles – only the contributions the LBGT community has made.
But what of parents who still do not want even the words gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual mentioned in a classroom?
What is their recourse? The Chico Unified School District’s Board of Education has a policy on the district’s website (www.chicousd.org) dealing with controversial issues. Currently the board permits students to be dismissed from instruction for animal dissections and sex education. Since the LBGT requirement falls under the study of History and Civics, parents would be forced to make a special appeal to the district.
But this would be impossible if Rives had her way since the LBGT lessons would be woven throughout the curriculum.
“If the implementation is done correctly and with the spirit of the legislation in mind, it would probably be impossible to remove a child for just "those" lessons without removing them from the classroom entirely,” she said.
But what if the report of someone’s sexuality is incorrect? Do we rewrite the textbooks? Hansen suggests there could legal considerations.
“Is there liability coverage for damages done to living public figures or their heirs who may consider themselves slandered, or who simply wish their bedroom activities kept private?” he wondered.
Bohannon says this is a good question.
“This is another reason why specific direction from the California Department of Education would be helpful,” he said.
Another option for parents who are adamantly opposed to SB 48 is an expensive one – private schools, which are not required to teach the curriculum of SB 48.
This option is also costly for the Chico Unified School District. For every student it loses – whatever the reason -- the State of California subtracts approximately $5,000 from its financial support to the district.
It’s too early to know if the new law will affect enrollment. Based on reports from one religious private school, it hasn’t.
“We have not been impacted by this bill,” said Bev Landers, the principal at Chico Christian. “No one has sought our school as a result of this bill at this point.”