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Published in Print: March 1, 2000, as Public Enragement or Public Engagement?

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Public Enragement or Public Engagement?

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What is striking about many of these uproars is the degree to which they quickly become mired in senseless shouting.

Orange County, Calif. Pinellas County, Fla. Manchester, N.H. Salt Lake City. Grossmont, Calif. Each of these school districts has experienced recent public outcry or legal conflict over the actions taken, or not taken, by school officials to address the safety of gay students. What is striking about many of these uproars is the degree to which they quickly become mired in senseless shouting that reflects not only divisive citizen disagreement on the issues, but also public enragement with the refusal, perceived or actual, of school boards to permit all affected stakeholders a meaningful voice in the policy process.

For example, in Salt Lake City, after a group of gay high school students in 1996 sought approval to form an extracurricular student club known as the Gay/Straight Alliance, in part to provide peer support for gay students struggling to withstand the taunts and threats inherent in the school environment, the board sought input on the proposal at a two-hour public hearing. Unfortunately, the hearing provided the board with very little real input, since many of those in attendance chose to use the forum as an opportunity to grandstand and belittle. At one point, certain opponents of the club lumped all homosexuals together with transvestites, alcoholics, and sexual deviants, while throughout the evening, supporters of the club hoisted signs proclaiming "Down with homophobic clergy." The result? A decision was made to ban all extracurricular student clubs, rather than allow the Gay/Straight Alliance to meet under the federal Equal Access Act, a ban that stands to this day and which has been the subject of extensive litigation.

Similarly, when the board of the Grossmont (Calif.) Union High School District attempted to unilaterally add sexual orientation to the district's nondiscrimination policy, it was unprepared for the emotional response the proposal would provoke, or the difficulty it would have persuading citizens to listen in board hearings. According to the board president, public hearings on the new policy were packed with "a thousand people or so, yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs about how this was going to lead to decay and corruption and so on." The result? Even though the board approved the policy by a vote of 3-2, the community was left in turmoil, with the board president's opponents organizing a petition drive to oust him from office.


There is a different way to address these controversial issues, one that can not only resolve conflict over the particular issues involving gay students, but that can also unite communities on school initiatives of all types.

Yet policy decisions affecting gay students do not have to be made in the crucible of hostile, confrontational public hearings, or subject school districts to lawsuits. Some school officials, like those in Modesto, Calif., have demonstrated that there is a different way to address these controversial issues, one that can not only resolve conflict over the particular issues involving gay students, but that can also unite communities on school initiatives of all types.

Modesto's trial by fire began in late 1996, when the district became embroiled in a heated dispute over its decision to modify its safe-schools policy for the specific benefit of gay students. Upset that the proposed policy added sexual orientation under the nondiscrimination umbrella, and that it stated the district's commitment to an environment in which "differences are accepted," parents and clergy flooded the district with letters, phone calls, and pointed condemnations at board meetings. Ultimately, the board approved the policy change, but it was at this point that its experience became unique.

Seeing that the new policy was essentially meaningless without community support to enforce it, school officials, led by Superintendent James Enochs and Associate Superintendent Sharon Burnis, determined that meaningful public input was needed to ensure the policy's successful implementation. Consequently, in April 1997, the board authorized formation of the District/Community Safe Schools Project Committee, a group that eventually included 115 city residents representing a diverse array of viewpoints from across the religious and political spectrum.

This critical mass of people, divided up into three subcommittees, spent the next eight months brainstorming, discussing, and analyzing ideas regarding the policy's goals, and in the end reached what, for many, seemed an unthinkable goal at the outset. In December of 1997, the committee forwarded a policy recommendation to the board of education that contained not only revised policy language unanimously approved by all 115 committee members, but also an extensive set of guidelines designed to implement the policy in the areas of student services, curriculum, and staff development.

The result? A new safe-schools policy comprehensive enough to protect all students, provisions on extracurricular clubs allowing students to form Gay/Straight Alliances as long as they provide written parental consent as required for all extracurricular organizations, and a community excited about working cooperatively to solve difficult problems.


What remains to be seen is whether more districts will do the hard work of engagement to chart a course toward consensus when issues involving gay students begin to cause friction.

Research from the Annenberg Foundation and other sources has begun to illustrate the many positive benefits of public engagement, a process which involves much more than holding a few public hearings to see who can yell the loudest. What remains to be seen is whether more districts will, like Modesto, do the hard work of engagement to chart a course toward consensus when issues involving gay students begin to cause friction.

As a starting place, school officials might ground an engagement process in the following principles:

  • There is benefit to be gained by educating stakeholders about the legal responsibilities of schools. When parents and community members are informed, in a nonthreatening, nondefensive forum, that schools have legal duties under the U.S. Constitution's equal-protection clause and the federal Title IX legislation to protect all students from peer sexual harassment and discrimination, the door can be opened to a meaningful dialogue on the moral imperative of preserving a school environment in which all students feel safe. In addition, the terms of the debate can be reframed when stakeholders learn about both the history and the effect of the Equal Access Act. Once they are taught that the EAA was designed to protect all forms of noncurricular, nondisruptive student speech, regardless of its political or religious nature, parents come to understand that the price one pays for being able to speak out on topics of one's choice is allowing some speech with which one disagrees. The alternative, as in the Salt Lake City schools, is no clubs and no speech at all.

In short, once relevant laws are explained, including the First Amendment, the discussion can shift away from the narrow and divisive topic of homosexuality to broad and inclusive topics with which all members of the school community ought to be concerned.

  • All parents deserve to be heard and respected. The eighth national education goal states that, by this year, "every school will promote partnerships that will increase parental involvement and participation in promoting the social, emotional, and academic growth of children." Consistent with this goal, Modesto's public-engagement process was rooted in two themes: (1) the importance of teaching civic responsibility, and (2) the importance of ensuring parents the right to make decisions about their children's activities at school. When school officials are genuine in such an approach, all parents, regardless of their religious beliefs or views on homosexuality, develop trust in the system and in their own abilities to make meaningful contributions to policy discussions.
  • Public engagement is most effective when undertaken before litigation casts a long shadow on the process.
Once relevant laws are explained, the discussion can shift away from the narrow and divisive topic of homosexuality to broad and inclusive topics.

Admittedly, it took a major conflict to get the Modesto city schools to structure a public-engagement process and actively involve stakeholders in the policy process. However, the district's commitment to keep dialogue open, receive ongoing input, and move the process forward with the assistance of mediators and dynamic administrators kept the parties out of court and resulted in a tremendous resolution of the dispute. On the other hand, court-ordered mediation in Salt Lake City went nowhere once a lawsuit by gay students was well under way, and it seems less likely that any kind of meaningful negotiation will take place in Orange, Calif., now that legal positions have been staked out. ("Judge's Approval of Club for Gay Students Leads to Protest," Feb. 16, 2000.)

A community policy process has its best chance at success when it is organized and implemented before lawyers are retained to do battle.

Without question, issues involving gay students in public schools are complex and will continue to proliferate across the country. The issues are also ripe for conflict; virtually any topic touching on homosexuality will confront school boards with a plethora of political, religious, parental, and legal concerns. Nevertheless, if people will lower their voices, and participate genuinely in an inclusive policy process focused more on listening than talking, anger can give way to collaboration, and school leaders will enjoy some of the most rewarding work they have ever done.


David S. Doty is a school attorney and the chairman of the Education Law Practice Group at Kirton & McConkie in Salt Lake City.

Vol. 19, Issue 25, Pages 47,72

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