In a Minneapolis classroom, a fourth-grader says "That's so gay,'' which in turn intimidates and offends a child with two moms. In the hallway, a third-grader shoulder-shoves another boy while using the other f-word.
Those types of exchanges occur regularly at Minneapolis elementary schools, educators say. So when children taunt, tease or harass their peers with antigay epithets, what should teachers do? That's the dilemma Minneapolis school leaders seek to address in considering the "Welcoming Schools'' guide, a lesson plan on diversity, bullying, gender-stereotyping and name-calling.
Despite its worthy goals, the proposed program has become controversial. Some parents believe it's inappropriate to discuss sexual orientation in schools. Some say that programs such as "Welcoming Schools'' directly conflict with their views on family structure. Understandably, these are sensitive issues. That's why the district would allow parents to opt out of the pilot program now under consideration.
At the same time, teachers and administrators have a duty to provide a safe, harassment-free learning environment. Children from all types of families attend our schools, and some parents expect educators to address even the most personal issues facing families today. The views of those parents are just as legitimate as the concerns voiced by parents who oppose diversity exercises in schools.
National research done by organizations including Mental Health America shows that bullying is a significant problem in schools, and that antigay harassment is one of its most prevalent forms. Behavior that used to occur mostly in high schools is increasingly seen in elementary and middle schools.
Harassed, bullied students are more likely to do poorly in class, miss school, drop out and consider suicide. And bullying that begins in the early grades can escalate into violent assault and even murder. In fact, some of the perpetrators in U.S. school shootings were victims of teasing or bullying. Those incidents prompted more than half of all states, including Minnesota, to adopt antibullying statutes.
That's another reason teachers cannot simply ignore the behavior -- it's the law. Case in point: A district in Illinois recently paid an eighth grader nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit for failing to protect him against antigay bullying.
The "Welcoming Schools'' guide was created by Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual advocacy group. Minneapolis is considering using it on a pilot basis in three elementary schools -- Hale, Jefferson and Park View -- because staff members at schools around the district asked for help. The district uses other antibullying programs, but none that specifically addresses gender stereotypes or antigay harassment.
On May 28, the Minneapolis public schools curriculum and instruction committee will consider next steps. They can accept or reject the program, modify it or look for another teaching guide from another source.
Ideally they'll come up with a program that strikes a balance between the concerns of parents who object to having their children involved in discussions about sexual orientation at school and those parents who believe such a program is overdue.