Join Date: February 12, 2006
Film With Same-Sex Parents Splits School District
EVESHAM TOWNSHIP, N.J., Sept. 7 â€” The children talked among themselves about their parents â€” children of interracial families, children of divorce, children who had been adopted â€” and that did not seem to cause a ripple.
â€œItâ€™s not your fault,â€ says Montana, a first grader whose parents are divorced.
Emily describes her interracial family â€” her father is of European descent and her motherâ€™s background is Asian â€” this way: â€œIt doesnâ€™t mean you have to be a rat to marry a rat. You can be a rat and marry a mouse.â€
But at another point in a state-approved educational video shown to third graders here, Daniel introduces his parents: â€œThese are my two dads.â€
Another child says, â€œItâ€™s really cool have to two gay dads, because they brought us into a home, and they adopted us, and they love us.â€
That was enough to entangle this wealthy suburb of 45,000, about 15 miles east of Philadelphia, in a heated debate among parents and educators. As the issue simmered, the district decided to shelve the film, provoking the threat of a lawsuit by gay rights activists who said the districtâ€™s refusal to show the video was a violation of state antidiscrimination laws.
The issue first arose in December after a class of third graders at the J. Harold Van Zant School here was shown â€œThatâ€™s a Family!,â€ a documentary created by an Academy Award-winning filmmaker intended to show students the different forms that families can take, as part of the curriculum required in New Jersey. But the district temporarily stopped showing the video after some parents complained that they should be able to decide whether their third-grade children should learn about same-sex couples in the classroom.
School district officials then sought to allay their concerns by providing a special screening for the parents of third graders, although only about a fifth of them attended. A poll conducted for the district found the town divided almost evenly: 50.4 percent were in favor of showing the video, and 49.5 percent were opposed.
After eight months of deliberations, a 27-member committee appointed by the school board and made up of parents, teachers and administrators recommended that the district continue to show the video. But on Aug. 30, the district rejected the proposal and stood by its decision to ban the film.
â€œI didnâ€™t expect it to come out of Evesham,â€ Trish Everhart, a member of the parent teacher association at Richard L. Rice Elementary School here, said of the dispute. â€œI felt like we were living in the â€™50s.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights group, said the districtâ€™s decision, which he called outdated and illegal, was based on antigay prejudice.
â€œItâ€™s not about parental control, itâ€™s about fear of gay people,â€ Mr. Goldstein said. â€œWe think the school boardâ€™s decision hinges on its fear of one community â€” the lesbian and gay community â€” and violates the stateâ€™s law against discrimination.â€
Mr. Goldstein said his group was considering a lawsuit against the district.
School officials, including Patricia M. Lucas, the superintendent of schools here, declined requests for interviews. But in a statement, they defended their decision and said they would rely on other methods to meet state standards for teaching children about nontraditional families.
â€œDiscussion and instruction on the subject matter involving family diversity will continue in compliance with state core curriculum content standards mandates,â€ the statement read.
Opponents of the video praised the districtâ€™s decision, saying that their position was based not on prejudice, but on what they felt was suitable for their children.
â€œI donâ€™t think it was appropriate,â€ said Jennifer Monteleone, 35, who is a parent of two children at the Robert B. Jaggard Elementary School. â€œIf it was maybe in fifth grade, but in third grade theyâ€™re a little too young.â€
Yet Ms. Monteleone also questioned whether the video should be shown at all because of the presence of the same-sex couples.
â€œItâ€™s something to be discussed within families,â€ she said. â€œI think itâ€™s the parentsâ€™ responsibility to teach the kids about that stuff.â€
Delores Stepnowski, a parent of another Jaggard student, said parents should have been given more notice that the video would be shown.
â€œSomething that controversial should have been discussed,â€ Ms. Stepnowski said. The children â€œshouldnâ€™t learn questionable things in school that theyâ€™re not ready for and donâ€™t understand.â€
In New Jersey, all 615 districts are required to include lessons about alternative families, although they are left to choose whether to do so through the use of lectures, videos or other means. State education officials said they did not know how many other districts, if any, chose to show â€œThatâ€™s a Family!,â€ or whether any of them balked at its presentation.
The film was created by Debra Chasnoff, the executive director of Womenâ€™s Educational Media, which produced and distributes it. Ms. Chasnoff won an Academy Award for a 1991 documentary about the effects of nuclear weapons production.
Ms. Chasnoff said that the film, which was intended as â€œa catalyst for this discussion,â€ had been presented in hundreds of other districts around the country, and that Evesham was the first place to stop showing it.
â€œOur approach in making the film is young people giving young people a chance to know whatâ€™s going on in their lives,â€ Ms. Chasnoff said. â€œThere are some things that all loving families share.â€
She noted that when a protest arose in Novato, Calif., in 2001, the district addressed the concerns of parents by allowing them to decide on an individual basis whether their children would see the film.
â€œItâ€™s part of our fifth-grade curriculum,â€ said Connie Benz, the communications coordinator for the Novato Unified School District, in Marin County north of San Francisco. â€œWe havenâ€™t had any problems because parents can opt out.â€
One education expert, Steven Athanases, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Davis, praised Ms. Chasnoffâ€™s â€œincredible filmmaking skillâ€ and said the film had great potential as a teaching tool when paired with additional instruction.
â€œIn general, films require good, facilitated discussion,â€ Dr. Athanases said. â€œJust showing a film is not necessarily a good idea.â€
He also said that in general, third graders could grasp the concepts in the film â€œas long as theyâ€™re facilitated.â€
Parents like Ms. Everhart, whose 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, attends Rice Elementary School, agreed.
â€œThis is the way the world is now,â€ she said. â€œI think this is the age where kids need to learn these things.â€
Ms. Everhart, who served on the panel that recommended using the video, said she was troubled because the district ignored suggestions like giving the parents an option or bumping up its use to the fourth grade.
As Mary Ellis, a parent of a 10-year-old son at Rice, put it:
â€œPeople who donâ€™t want the school to show the video say, â€˜We can teach our own kids.â€™ Sure you can. But whoâ€™s going to teach you?â€
Last edited by Maverick; September 15th, 2007 at 08:08 AM.