School administrators could ward off bitter battles over issues of sexual orientation by taking an active role in bringing people of different views together for discussion before controversies erupt, according to a resource guide for educators and parents developed by a center that promotes First Amendment values.
The First Amendment Center is an affiliate of the Freedom Forum, an Arlington, Va.-based foundation that focuses on issues of free expression and religious freedom. The guide was endorsed by both the Christian Educators Association International, a Pasadena, Calif., group that represents Christian teachers and employees in public schools, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, based in New York City. Representatives from both groups were in Washington for a press event releasing the guide.
In light of fierce disputes over such issues as gay-straight student alliances in schools and sex education that discusses homosexuality, “it is important to reaffirm that public schools belong to all Americans,” the guide says. “The role of school officials, therefore, is to be fair, honest brokers of a dialogue that involves all stakeholders and seeks the common good.”
The guidelines suggest that schools include all groups in discussion of sensitive issues. Administrators should listen to all sides. And they should be careful not to discriminate against student clubs or expression simply because the club’s political or religious message may be unpopular or possibly offensive.
That may seem like common sense. But common sense often doesn’t prevail in such discussions, said Charles C. Haynes, the senior scholar and the director of education programs at the First Amendment Center.
Still, “the vast majority of Americans really want us to find common ground on these issues. This is not about compromising convictions,” he said.
The process that went into creating the five-page document, which also was endorsed by the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va., and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, in Alexandria, Va., is an example of the communication methods Mr. Haynes endorses.
Last May, Mr. Haynes selected groups to give advice that have a strong focus on education issues and are not known for litigiousness.
“There’s no lawyers in the room,” he said.
The participants were reassured that their points of view would be respected, and that no group was trying to promote a specific agenda.
“I love the fact that this is proactive,” said Kevin Jennings, the executive director of GLSEN, which sponsors more than 2,500 gay-straight student alliances. It’s better to address issues before they become urgent because of a crisis, he said.
Finn Laursen, the executive director of the Christian educators’ group, said he was pleased that the guidelines don’t mention “compromise.” Members of his organization, which supports what he called traditional family values, don’t want to compromise on their religious beliefs, he said. However, all sides should be able to communicate with respect, he said.
“To me, the power in this is that all sides are invited to the table,” Mr. Laursen said.
In the past, the First Amendment Center has also helped develop guidelines on the proper role of religion in public education that were distributed by the U.S. Department of Education to every public school in the country.
Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the AASA, said that while he believes school districts should adopt an active role in addressing issues involving sexual orientation, “I think there’s a lot of hope that if you don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.”
“It’s going to be an act of courage on the part of a lot of school districts to deal with this,” he said.
Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs, Colo., organization that promotes a traditional, Christian-based view of the family, said it “applaud[ed] these efforts to end viewpoint discrimination.” But the group “still supports parents’ rights to address these topics with their own children in the privacy of the home,” said Gary Schneeberger, a spokesman for the group.
Jody M. Huckaby, the executive director of the Washington-based Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said the guidelines “prove a critical point: Protecting the freedom of speech and maintaining a respectful dialogue when talking about issues of sexual orientation are not mutually exclusive values.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Guidelines Urge a Dialogue on Gay Issues in Schools