Taking Sides

By Joanna Richardson — April 01, 1993 9 min read

When one of Pat Moloney’s high school students in Meridian, Idaho, asked him if she could invite three lesbians to talk to students as part of a project on gay parenting, he and two other teachers saw a learning opportunity and agreed to her request. What they didn’t see was the powder keg they were about to ignite.

Within hours of the lesbians’ classroom visit last November, school board members were fielding angry complaints from parents. By 10 o’clock that night, Moloney and the two other teachers, Randy Fout and Greg Harm, had been suspended pending an inquiry. “We were given no reason,” says Moloney, a sociology teacher. “The assumption was that we had all committed some major crime and we should know what that is.”

To show their solidarity with the “Meridian Three” and mourn “the death of academic freedom,” teachers in the Boise suburb began wearing black armbands. But they weren’t the only ones mobilizing. Posters and fliers began appearing on car windshields and community bulletin boards announcing rallies for those who supported the board’s action.

The armbands and fliers symbolized the deep philosophical and political divisions that have split the community, and many others like it across the country. On one side in the Meridian dispute are more than 1,000 residents who have joined Partners, a parent-activist group that 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 supports the teachers and advocates open discussion in the classroom.

Although Moloney, Fout, and Harm were allowed to return to their posts after two days, 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 in Meridian. “This whole thing,” one resident laments, “has just polarized the community.”

Some residents describe the incident 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, currently is experiencing severe growing pains. The district’s formerly sleepy neighborhoods in recent years have seen an influx of high-technology firms. The new employers have brought with them both money and a steady stream of outsiders.

As the neighborhoods and businesses have grown, so has the number of religious groups active in the area. Although 30 percent to 40 percent of area residents are members of the Mormon Church, 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. “We’re getting a more diverse population,” Cindy Betz, president of the Meridian Education Association, observes. “I think many groups are afraid of that.”

But others say the debate is simply one over parental control of the schools. Parents in this community were already divided over sex education. The schism developed last year when Mary Schwartzman, a nurse at Lowell Scott Junior High School, gave frank answers to 6th graders’ questions about 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 Santa Ana, Calif. (See “Christian Soldier,” November/December 1992.)

CEE, which has chapters in both Meridian and Boise, sent a letter to the Meridian board intimating that Schwartzman should be dismissed for violating Idaho’s family-life and sex education laws. Although Schwartz- man 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, a school board member, says the board’s initial decision to suspend the Meridian teachers was a reaction to the earlier event. “It seemed like a volatile situation,” says 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. The parents thought their opinions had been completely ignored—betrayed and ignored.”

Furchak and Steve Givens, chairman of the Meridian school board, say parents began lodging complaints almost immediately 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,” says Givens, the owner of a construction company. “Our children have to be exposed, and it’s OK for them to discuss [homosexuality]. But we don’t want teachers bringing them into the classroom.”

After discussing the incident with Superintendent Bob Haley, the board directed Haley and Principal Gil Koga to suspend the teachers with pay pending an in-depth investigation. “People assumed that because of what we did, we were promoting a lifestyle,” says Fout, who, with Harm, teaches the American character course—a hybrid of history and literature. But, he argues, “there’s a difference between promotion and education.”

For Givens, however, education about homosexuality is a steppingstone for homosexuals to invite young people into their ranks. Homosexuals “try to gain acceptance in the younger generation at the schools,” he maintains. “The next step is to say, `We’re normal’ and then go to promotion. The teachers are part of that, but unintentionally.”

Furchak says 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,” Betz of the local union says. “These topics 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 allowed to return, but only after making a public apology; reprimands would be placed in their personnel files. But those stipulations were removed two days later after teachers took a vote of no confidence in the board, and the IEA negotiated a settlement with Superintendent Haley.

Haley now concedes that “there were errors made on both sides.” He adds that he “never felt it was necessary to make the suspension.” But Givens still questions the professional judgment of the teachers. He charges that the three planned the activity for a month but submitted the visitors permission slip to school officials only a day before the event, failing to give sufficient notice to administrators and parents.

Barbara Youngstrom, one of the leaders of the group backing the board, says “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?” Youngstrom explains. “Parents’ due process was violated, too. We believe in the parents’ right to guide their children’s education.”

The three Meridian teachers and union officials say the board’s decision has had a “chilling effect” on local educators. “We are watched in ways we were never watched before,” Fout says, “and questioned in ways we were never questioned before.”

Officials of the MEA and the IEA say they have found at least 10 instances of self-censorship since the teachers were suspended. According to 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 says. “Another teacher was going to discuss events in Somalia but was afraid about the multiculturalism because CEE is opposed.”

CEE’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.”

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 points 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.”

Chase concedes that some students were unreceptive to her school visit, especially the question-and-answer session. While students were given the option before class not to participate, two left the room during the discussion. One student who stayed, Tim Walsh, says 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,” Tim says. “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. The lesbian speakers just shouldn’t have been brought in.”

Tim says he hopes the new speakers’ committee the district has created will come up with a list of topics for special handling that will include “anything and everything that has to do with AIDS, 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 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,” says Brian McColl, a Boise lawyer.

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,” Moloney, the sociology teacher, argues.

But Youngstrom of Partners says she believes “it’s an inevitability that a list be developed.”

“If I were a teacher, I would want one,” she says. “Who wants to second-guess?”—

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Taking Sides