Ramona Unified School District officials, threatened with a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of San Diego County for allegedly violating a 12-year-old Mount Woodson Elementary School student’s right to free speech, are caught in “an impossible Catch-22 situation, damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” according to former school board member Christopher Smith.
“But I think the district has done the right thing, and is out in front. Instead of possibly facing 20 or more lawsuits by angry parents, they are facing just the one, threatened by the ACLU,” said Smith, who recently stepped down after four years on the board.
The issue arose when sixth-grader Natalie Jones sought to give her fellow students a PowerPoint presentation on the life of the late gay activist, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official when he won his seat as a San Francisco supervisor 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.
Jones’ presentation was the result of an Independent Research Project Class for advanced placement or “Excel” students, who were required to select a person or topic, and, after independent research, make a presentation to the rest of the class. Jones chose Milk after seeing last year’s Academy Award-winning film Milk, starring Sean Penn, in which the late supervisor’s life was featured.
But the district singled out Jones’ project, allowing parents to withdraw their children from being exposed to the “sensitive” material. The ACLU wants an apology for the student, her right to present her project to all her classmates, a clarification of the policy under which the district acted, and assurances that there will not be a repetition. The district had until May 26 to respond.
According to the ACLU, Jones submitted a description of her project and a draft report without incident prior to her final report, on which she received a score of 49 out of a possible 50.
But on April 22, the day before Jones’ scheduled presentation, she was called to school principal Theresa Grace’s office where she was told that her research work was “sensitive.” It was decided by Grace and other district officials she could not present it to the rest of the class without the parental permission of her classmates.
According to David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU Foundation for San Diego and Imperial Counties, the district and school position are based on an incorrect interpretation of the district’s “Family Life/Sex Education” policy.
That policy says in part, “At the beginning of the school year, parents/guardians shall be notified in writing about any instruction in which human reproductive organs and their functions, processes or sexually transmitted diseases are described, illustrated or discussed. In addition, before any instruction on family life, human sexuality, AIDS or sexually transmitted diseases is given, the parent/guardian shall be provided with written notice explaining that the instruction will be given and stating the parent’s/guardian’s right to request a copy of Education Code 51201.5 and 51551. This notification shall inform parents/guardians that they may request in writing that their child not attend the class. No student shall attend such instruction if the school receives this request. At the parent’s/guardian’s request, any student may be excused from any part of family life/sex education instruction.”
On April 28 such a letter went out to the parents of the other 13 “Excel” students. It noted that one of the presentations revolved around the life of Harvey Milk. The letter said, in part: “Mr. Milk was an elected supervisor in San Francisco. He was the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States. While he was in office, he championed the rights of minorities and sponsored the Gay Rights Act and founded the first gay rights parade. He was assassinated in 1978 while still holding office.
“We understand this is a sensitive topic. In order to respect the rights of all our students and their parents, we are requesting permission from a parent or guardian of our 13 sixth-grade Excel students, before these students are allowed to see the Harvey Milk presentation.”
The letter was signed by Grace. The presentation was rescheduled for May 8, during a lunch recess, when approximately half the class attended. Neither Grace nor district Superintendent Robert Graeff returned phone calls for comment.
In essence, the debate is whether the life of Harvey Milk is subject matter within the district’s Family Life/Sex Education policy or not. The district says it is; the ACLU says it is not, in addition to being a violation of free speech.
For Smith, who did not run for re-election because “I found I could only give 100 percent of my commitment to something that demands and the public is entitled to 120 percent,” said, “There are some incredibly fine lines that teachers and administrators are forced to walk in making decisions in some of these areas, areas that might not include sex education.
“Imagine what might happen if a student decided to do a project on the Iranian President’s argument against the Holocaust ever having happened. Many people believe he is a nut case and I believe he is crazy, but someone could easily argue that as the head of a nation that frequently is cited in U.S. foreign policy plans, he might justify a research project. But I can also imagine that a lot of people would consider it totally inappropriate for their children to be exposed to such a project.
“This cannot be seen in a vacuum,” said Smith. “We all saw how Ramona voted on Prop 8 last fall (the gay marriage bill), and I will bet there are people in this community who would not be thrilled to hear their sixth-grader coming home to tell of how the learned about the gay lifestyle today at school.”