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Lesbian Parents' School Visit Sparks A Clash of Cultures in Boise Suburb

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MERIDIAN, IDAHO--After three high school teachers here were suspended by the school board last November for allowing lesbian parents to speak to a group of students, many teachers in this Boise suburb began wearing black armbands to school as a symbol of solidarity and "the death of academic freedom.''

At the same time, posters and fliers began appearing on car windshields and community bulletin boards announcing rallies for parents who supported the board.

The armbands and fliers symbolized the deep divisions over the incident that have split this community in the past three months.

On one side are more than 1,000 residents who have joined Partners, a parent-activist group that supports the board's decision to discipline the teachers and favors tight controls on the way schools handle sensitive topics. On the other are a nearly equal number of parents in Voices for Education, which advocates open discussion in the classroom.

Although the teachers were returned to their posts after two days, following a four-hour school board meeting that attracted intensive attention from the local media, the public reaction to the controversy continues to ferment.

"This whole thing,'' lamented one Meridian resident,"has just polarized the community.''

Debates over such fundamental issues as due process, teachers' professional freedom, respect for the religious beliefs of parents, and the place of social issues in public education are still raging.

Voices in Education has mounted a recall campaign against one board member, whose outspokenly conservative views the group contends are out of touch with the community.

And the school board, acting on the complaints of Partners, has convened a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators to define controversial issues and create a speakers' policy for the schools.

Growing Pains

Some residents describe the incident at Meridian High School as a barometer of the social and religious forces at work in the community.

The 16,000-student Meridian school district, which includes a number of suburban and rural communities on the west side of Boise, the state capital, currently is experiencing severe growing pains, observers say.

The district's formerly sleepy neighborhoods in recent years have seen an influx of high-technology firms, such as Hewlett-Packard, from California's Silicon Valley. The new employers have brought with them both money and a steady stream of outsiders.

As the neighborhoods and business opportunities have grown, so has the number of religious groups active in the area, according to Steve Givens, the chairman of the Meridian school board.

In the town of Eagle, Mr. Givens noted, "They're building churches as rapidly as they're building homes.''

Although 30 percent to 40 percent of area residents are members of the Mormon Church, as is Mr. Givens, the churches being constructed here are for a variety of evangelical and other Christian congregations.

The result of all this activity is the beginning of a clash of cultures, Cindy Betz, the president of the Meridian Education Association, contends.

"There are people coming in and we're getting a more diverse population,'' Ms. Betz observed. "I think many groups are afraid of that.''

In Meridian, "a backlash has come to the surface,'' added Roy Cuellar, a New York transplant and a member of Voices.

'A Volatile Situation'

But others call the debate a simple issue of parental control.

Parents in this community were already divided by a public debate over sex education that began last year when Mary Schwartzman, a nurse at Lowell Scott Junior High School, gave frank and specific answers to 6th graders' questions about the basketball star Earvin (Magic) Johnson and AIDS.

The incident touched off a heated response that drew the attention of Citizens for Excellence in Education, a conservative Christian organization based in Costa Mesa, Calif., that has launched a grassroots campaign to restore "academic excellence, Godly morals, and traditional American values to the classroom.''

C.E.E., which has chapters in both Meridian and Boise, sent a letter to the Meridian school board intimating that Ms. Schwartzman should be dismissed for violating Idaho's family-life and sex-education laws.

Although Ms. Schwartzman was cleared of all charges, the district went through a lengthy and tumultuous process in arriving at its current multitrack sex-education curriculum.

Annie Furchak, the board member who is the target of the recall effort, explains the board's initial decision to suspend the Meridian teachers as a reaction to the earlier event.

"It seemed like a volatile situation,'' said Ms. Furchak, who last summer unseated a board member who had endorsed a liberal sex-education plan.

"This community was very sensitive to the issues after a year of debate,'' Ms. Furchak said. "The parents thought their opinion had been completely ignored--betrayed and ignored.''

Teachers Suspended

Ms. Furchak and Mr. Givens said they were fielding parent complaints within a few hours after the three lesbian parents spoke to about 50 students from the sociology and American-character classes at Meridian.

"Students came home and told parents, and they were furious,'' said Mr. Givens, the owner of a construction company. "Our children have to be exposed, and it's okay for them to discuss [homosexuality]. But we don't want teachers bringing them into the classroom.''

After discussing the incident that evening with Superintendent Bob L. Haley, the board directed Mr. Haley and Principal Gil Koga to suspend the teachers with pay pending an investigation.

The "Meridian Three,'' as the teachers were later dubbed, were told of the disciplinary action at about 10 o'clock that night.

"We were given no reason'' for the suspension, said Pat Moloney, the sociology teacher whose student planned the project on gay parenting. "The assumption was that we had all committed some major crime and we should know what that is.''

Randy Fout, who with Greg Harm team-teaches the American-character course--a hybrid of history and literature--said that "people assumed that because of what we did, we were promoting a lifestyle.''

But, Mr. Fout argued, "There's a difference between promotion and education.''

Union Intervenes

For Mr. Givens, however, education about homosexuality is a stepping stone for homosexuals to invite young people into their ranks.

Homosexuals "try to gain acceptance in the younger generation at the schools,'' he maintained. "The next step is to say 'We're normal,' and then go to promotion. The teachers are part of that, but unintentionally.''

Ms. Furchak said board members felt it would be best for the teachers to stay away from the school until officials could gather more information.

Nevertheless, the 11th-hour decision by the board angered both the local teachers' union and the Idaho Education Association, which quickly attacked the action as a flagrant violation of an academic-freedom clause in the teachers' contract.

"The issue here is academic freedom and the violation of due process,'' Ms. Betz of the local union said. "These topics [pertaining to homosexuality] were in the sociology textbook and were covered in the social-studies curriculum in American character. The teachers' intent was to allow open discussion of current events.''

The union promptly intervened on behalf of the teachers. Two days after the suspension, the board was pressured into reinstating the teachers, though conditions were attached.

At a school board meeting that drew hundreds of area residents and most of the local news media, school officials announced that the teachers would be returned upon making a public apology, with reprimands placed in their personnel files.

However, that decision was overturned--and the conditions lifted--two days later, after teachers took a vote of no confidence in the board and the I.E.A. negotiated a settlement with Superintendent Haley.

A Parent's Right

In an interview, Mr. Haley conceded that "there were errors made on both sides'' in handling the situation. He added that he "never felt it was necessary to make the suspension.''

But Mr. Givens, the board president, questions the professional judgment of the teachers.

"They planned the activity for a month and they submitted the pink slip [for permission to have visitors on school grounds] at 10 A.M. the day before the event,'' thus failing to give sufficient notice either to administrators or parents, Mr. Givens charged.

Barbara Youngstrom, one of the leaders of the group backing the board, said "the difficulty was not that [the lesbian parents] came in; it was the trust that parents had that topics of a sexual nature would have parental-consent forms sent home.''

"It's kind of an irony that due process becomes the issue, because who fired the first shot, really?'' Ms. Youngstrom said. "Parents' due process was violated, too.''

"We believe in the parents' right to guide their children's education,'' she added. "The prevailing interest is getting kids prepared for college, instead of focusing on social issues to the degree they're being distracted by them now.''

Ms. Furchak agrees. "I go to great lengths to keep in tune with the patrons,'' she said, "and I find that a majority of those in my zone advocate basic education'' that would exclude discussion of subjects such as homosexuality.

"I'm still getting calls and letters'' about the board's decision, Ms. Furchak added. "I get nine calls in support of the board to every one call supporting the teachers' choice to do whatever they want.''

'Chilling Effect'

The three Meridian teachers and union officials say the board's decision has had a "chilling effect'' on local educators.

"What I see is that we are watched very carefully,'' Mr. Fout said. "We are watched in ways we were never watched before and questioned in ways we were never questioned before.''

Officials of the M.E.A. and the I.E.A. say they have found at least 10 instances of self-censorship since the teachers were suspended.

Katie Jolley, the student who invited the lesbians to speak, said the board's actions have created "so much fear for the teachers.''

"I've noticed that anything that has to do with sex is controversial--áéäó, teenage pregnancy,'' Ms. Jolley said.

"Teachers are now telling kids they will give them alternate assignments,'' added Jessica Majors, another student from Mr. Moloney's class.

According to Ms. Betz, sexual issues are not the only ones that teachers are hesitant to bring up in the classroom.

"We had some teachers who were afraid to discuss Martin Luther King day,'' she said. "Another teacher was going to discuss events in Somalia but was afraid about the multiculturalism, because C.E.E. is opposed.''

C.E.E.'s local chapters have reacted to the events at Meridian High School with little more than editorials in the local papers. Even so, the teachers' union believes that conservative Christian groups have "used the incident as a wedge in the community--a battering ram.''

Recruiting in the Schools?

Dallas Chase, a 45-year-old mother of two and one of the lesbians who spoke to the Meridian students, says some area residents have twisted the incident to further their own agendas.

She pointed out that the Idaho Citizens Alliance, which is lobbying to get an anti-homosexuality initiative on the state ballot in 1994, has referred to the Meridian incident as proof that homosexuals are "recruiting in the schools.''

Lon Mabon, who headed the Oregon Citizens Alliance's unsuccessful drive last year to get a similar initiative passed in that state, is expected soon to begin collecting signatures for the Idaho proposal.

Meridian school officials and backers of the anti-gay proposal "want to keep the enemies outside the city walls,'' Ms. Chase contended. "That's been the modus operandi, as I understand it, for years.''

"This does the kids a disservice,'' she argued. "They go out into the world and they don't see anything like what they've seen here.''

Ms. Chase concedes, however, that some students were unreceptive to the question-and-answer session.

While students were given the option not to participate before class, two left the room during the discussion, she recalls.

One student who stayed, Tim Walsh, said he remained for the entire class period only because he felt "intimidated by other students.''

"Teaching about homosexuality is just totally out of the question,'' Mr. Walsh said. "It's perverted, it's against a lot of people's morals, and it doesn't belong in public education.''

"The majority of the school is Christian and Mormon and they're opposed to homosexuality,'' he added. "[The lesbian speakers] just shouldn't have been brought in.''

Censorship Concerns

Mr. Walsh said he hopes the district's speakers' committee will come up with a list of topics for special handling that will include "anything and everything that has to do with áéäó, homosexuality, drugs, and religion.''

The committee has already drawn up a tentative policy that defines sensitive educational issues as "all ideological topics that may be perceived by parents as affecting their efforts to pass their moral, ethical, and religious beliefs to their children.''

While a number of students are helping to craft the policy, the founder of Voices worries that the panel's work will amount to censorship.

"We just need to let the community know that there are parents who will be here to watch and will not permit this wave of intolerance, '' said Brian McColl, a Boise lawyer.

Mr. McColl and union leaders are resisting the creation of a blanket list of controversial issues, arguing that it would disrupt the educational process.

"If conservative Christian groups had their way, the opportunity to educate students in an increasingly diverse society would become very difficult,'' Mr. Moloney, the sociology teacher, argued.

But Ms. Youngstrom of Partners said she believes "it's an inevitability that a list be developed.''

"If I were a teacher, I would want one,'' she said. "Who wants to second-guess?''

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