Mt. Woodson Elementary School sixth-grader Natalie Jones has learned a lot about truth and its consequences in the past few weeks.
She’s learned that if you strongly believe in something and fight for it, you can win, even against tough odds, said her mother, Bonnie. On the upside, that can get you a surprise trip to San Francisco. But on the downside, it can cost you a few friends, who have told Natalie that their parents will not allow them to be friends with her any more.
It was Natalie, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who took on her school administration and the entire Ramona Unified School District in a freedom of speech issue when she was partially blocked from presenting her research project on Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco gay activist and politician, to her full class because the subject was deemed to be too “sensitive.”
In April, when the original presentation was scheduled, officials believed that the subject matter was covered by the district’s sex education policy and letters were sent to the parents of the 20 students doing an independent research project, saying only those who got parental permission could attend Natalie’s presentation, citing the district’s “Family Life/Sex Education” policy.
Under a threatened lawsuit by the ACLU, district Superintendent Robert W. Graeff and school Principal Theresa Grace agreed to and wrote a letter of apology to Natalie and her mother. They wrote a second letter to the other parents explaining that the letter seeking their permission was an error caused by acting with an “abundance of caution,” and agreed to let Natalie give her presentation to the full class, which she did last week.
In the letter to the Joneses, Graeff and Grace say they were “overly cautious in our level of concern,” and “recognize that the mention or acknowledgment of a person’s sexual orientation is not sufficient to require parental permission to participate or view a student’s presentation.”
The district agreed to an ACLU call to ensure that its sex education policies are in line with all state requirements.
Milk was the first openly gay publicly elected official in the United States when he won his seat on the San Francisco supervisors in 1977. Eleven months later he was assassinated in a city hall shooting by former supervisor Dan White, an attack that also killed San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
Natalie said she chose Milk after seeing the movie on his life starring Sean Penn, who won an Academy award for his portrayal of Milk. Her written, 12-page report, scored 49 points out of a possible 50.
“Harvey Milk stood up for what he believed in and I felt I should do the same,“ Natalie said.
“I am very proud of her choice of Mr. Milk,” said her mother. “From her research he was clearly a man who didn’t just talk the talk of helping other people, but he walked the walk and got out there and helped them. I’m so proud that she picked a man like that rather than some Hollywood or celebrity type.
“Natalie is great daughter. She works hard and gets good grades, so I thought it would be fun to go to San Francisco and tour the public buildings where Harvey Milk worked and walk around his district, just like he used to.”
“All in all, it came out very well,” said ACLU spokesperson Rebecca Rauber.