Learning curve

State law requires school lessons acknowledge the LGBT community

Jodi Rives, a mother and gay-rights advocate, says inclusion of LGBT history in public school curriculum is long overdue.

Jodi Rives, a mother and gay-rights advocate, says inclusion of LGBT history in public school curriculum is long overdue.

Photo By melanie mactavish

On TV:
Jerry Olenyn is a reporter for KRCR-TV and contributor to the Chico News & Review. His video version of this story will appear on KRCR Channel 7 Thursday, Feb. 28, at 6:30 p.m.

The debate over same-sex relationships is heading to California’s classrooms.

The history that will be taught to California’s schoolchildren is being written right now by school districts across the state. It will include instruction on the economic, political and social development of California and the United States and the role of “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) Americans” in that development.

Senate Bill 48 added this language to the California Education Code and went into effect a year ago.

The bill also includes the contributions made by Native, African, Mexican, Asian and European Americans as well as Pacific Islanders and the disabled. The inclusion of these groups is not expected to cause the same stir as is recognizing the contributions of the LGBT community.

John Bohannon, the director of alternative education in the Chico Unified School District, is coordinating implementation of the new law. It’s difficult, he said, because the law is vague.

“The state has not provided specifics,” said Bohannon. “I wish we had more direction.”

He said the state will provide a framework for standards that include recommendations on how to meet the new law. But recommendations are not the same as requirements. The only requirement is that the contributions of the LGBT community be included in some form.

What exactly will be taught? To what age groups will it be taught? How much emphasis will it receive? The answers to these questions are left to individual teachers and school districts.

Without more direction, Bohannon said, he will rely on a committee of principals, teachers, community members and parents that is being assembled right now.

The committee, he said, needs to embody a cross-section of people with different views on the hot-button issue of sexual orientation.

“All sides need to be represented,” said Bohannon, who has already fielded a few calls from parents about the new law, all referring only to the LGBT provision.

Jodi Rives is in her 20th year teaching at the college level, currently as a communications studies instructor at Butte College. She’s also an active member of Chico’s Stonewall Alliance, which defends the rights of the LGBT community. The legislation, she said, is absolutely necessary and long overdue.

“I listen to the horror stories of violence and ignorance some of my LGBT friends and students have experienced locally at the hands of peers, educators, families, law enforcement and others, and I know we need to demand change,” said Rives, who has four children of her own. “Our community can and must do better.”

Religious families who believe same-sex relationships are sinful may take issue with the curriculum. In response, Rives says that what is taught in the schools should be independent of religious influence.

“I do not want religion and/or theology as the basis for educational decisions made on behalf of my children or the children of this nation,” she said.

Father Peter Hansen, who has written previously on this topic for the Chico News & Review (see “In their own words,” May 5, 2011), said he isn’t sure a religious or even moral argument is required here.

The rector at St. Augustine Anglican Church in downtown Chico, Hansen said he wonders if it’s necessary to preface the naming of every inventor, social contributor and elected official with a list of his or her particulars such as height, weight, sexuality, hair and eye color.

Father Peter Hansen takes a different stance, seeing a historical figure’s sexuality as extraneous to his or her contributions.

photo courtesy of peter hansen

“Was George Washington the father of our nation because he had sex with his wife, or perhaps with other women?” Hansen asked rhetorically, “Do we need to know this?”

Rives said yes, because heterosexuality is the default position on all people related to history.

“I think a concerted effort should be made to find those individuals who have been systematically eliminated from classroom instruction due to their identity or orientation and create opportunities for their inclusion,” Rives said.

Bohannon said the overriding concern is when these lessons will be taught to children.

“This is not specified in the law,” he said. “Currently civil-rights issues are taught in both 11th-grade U.S. history and 12th-grade civics.”

Parents of young children may find classroom discussion of bisexuality and lesbianism a bit premature.

Rives said she thinks any grade level should be part of the legislation, but within certain parameters for ages and styles.

“You aren’t going to interrupt kindergarten circle time to have a lengthy lecture about Harvey Milk,” she said. “But if the class is talking about San Francisco history… [Milk’s contributions] could effortlessly be incorporated into the curriculum.”

Hansen isn’t so sure.

“Has anyone asked the greats of history if this kind of disclosure is their wish?” he asked. “Elton John may make no secret of his orientation, but does every legislator, judge, actor, religious leader, scientist, inventor, social architect, doctor, general, writer, singer or guitarist wish this to be the leading description of his or her personhood in the mouths of school children and the general public?”

Bohannon said it’s unlikely the curriculum will include discussion about sexual orientation and lifestyles, but instead concentrate on the contributions the LBGT community has made.

But what of parents who still do not want even the words gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual mentioned in a classroom? What is their recourse?

The Chico Unified School District’s Board of Education has a policy on the district’s website (www.chicousd.org) dealing with controversial issues. Currently the board permits students to be dismissed from instruction for animal dissections and sex education. However, since the LGBT requirement falls under the study of history and civics, parents would be forced to appeal to the district to get their children excused from class.

This would be a challenge if the LGBT lessons were woven throughout the curriculum.

“If the implementation is done correctly and with the spirit of the legislation in mind,” Rives said, “it would probably be impossible to remove a child for just ‘those’ lessons without removing them from the classroom entirely.”

Another option for parents who are adamantly opposed to SB 48 is an expensive one: They can opt to send their kids to private schools, which are not required to follow the law.

That option is also costly for the Chico Unified School District. For each student it loses, the state of California subtracts approximately $5,000 from its financial support.

Bohannon doesn’t believe parents should decide their children’s schooling based on this one addition to the public school curriculum.

“This law represents a small percentage of what makes up Chico Unified,” he said. “We do so many things to help all of our children become successful. I hope the whole of what we do for kids would be used when parents make their decisions about the school their children attend.”