They listened as a gay student told what it felt like to attend a public school. They brought in an evangelical minister who explained his belief that homosexual activity is a sin. And they held focus groups to probe public opinion on sexual orientation.
In the end, a task force of leaders from the National Education Association was able to agree on this much: Educators cannot ignore the risks faced by homosexual students and school employees, but deciding how to deal with the issue should be a matter of local concern.
Officials of the 2.6 million- member NEA hardly expect the consensus—spelled out in a report approved by its board of directors Feb. 8—to satisfy the critics who accuse the union of pushing a “pro-homosexual” agenda. Instead, they say their hope is to focus new energies on addressing what they see as an urgent matter of safety and human rights, while recognizing that teachers, like the general public, hold widely divergent views on the subject.
“In the final analysis, it hardly matters why [gay students] are the way they are,” said Penny Kotterman, the president of the Arizona Education Association and the chairwoman of the 19-member task force. “What’s most important is that they have the opportunity to get an education.”
In fact, the “Report of the NEA Task Force on Sexual Orientation” does little to alter NEA policy, which has long supported attempts to protect gay students and school employees. One of the few specific changes it proposes is for the union to push for a federal ban on job discrimination based on sexual orientation.
While lauding the union for already taking “substantial” steps toward supporting gay students and staff members, the 50-page document makes clear the panel’s view that “more should be done.”
Although the NEA’s top leaders will determine how to fill that order, Ms. Kotterman said that any strategies will likely involve changes in the training and support programs that the union offers its members.
Whatever initiatives do emerge, the report says, “should not—expressly or by implication—take a position for or against any particular sexual orientation.” Further, it says, any school curricula that deal with such issues should be “developed locally by teachers, other education employees, school board members, parents, and community representatives.”
Talking Things Out
Despite those caveats, union leaders say schools shouldn’t try to sweep the needs of gay students under the rug. In its work, the NEA task force cited research indicating that gay, lesbian, and bisexual students are far more likely than their classmates to commit suicide, to be assaulted physically, and to drop out of school.
Clinton Anderson, an official with the American Psychological Association, agreed that the topic is a timely one.
“The NEA is very well- justified in taking a more forceful stance on schools’ addressing the needs of the population of kids that we’re talking about, regardless of what one believes about the morality or advisability of homosexual or sexual behavior among adolescents,” Mr. Anderson said. “The risks are real and need to be addressed.”
Others were skeptical of the union’s claim of support for local control. Dick Carpenter, the education policy analyst for the conservative group Focus on the Family, says he sees scant evidence that the NEA is abandoning what he argues has been an effort to “normalize” homosexuality. “They’re going to ramp up training activities to enable local and state leaders to go into public school boards and lobby to try to effect change on this issue,” he said.
The NEA action follows a year of sometimes heated discussion about the union’s stance on homosexual issues. Last summer, the organization’s main governing body opted not to vote on a resolution calling for the union to take new steps toward ensuring a “safe and inclusive” environment for gay and lesbian students at school. Instead, the matter was handed to the special task force. (“NEA Poised to Defer Vote on Aid for Gay Students,” July 11, 2001.)
Ms. Kotterman said that the meetings held by the panel over four months were sometimes highly emotional, and that the group included “people with very, very different views of what they wanted to happen at the end.” Some were leaders of NEA affiliates that had pressed for legal protections for homosexuals. Others represented state affiliates that have in the past lost members when the national organization took up the issue.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as NEA: Local Schools Must Address Safety of Gays