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Facing the Appeal of a Lawsuit and Vocal Objections, Alameda Schools Water Down Lesson Plans on Bullying and Sexual Orientation

Alameda County, CA
After facing challenges from a local conservative activist group, the Alameda Board of Education chose to change recently adopted elementary school lessons dealing with anti-gay bullying to lessons that deal more broadly with bias of all kinds.[1] SERVE (Seeking Equity and Respect for All Viewpoints in Education), the local group opposing the lessons, had filed a lawsuit against the district on the grounds that the curricula conflicts with its members’ beliefs and that, therefore, they should be given the option of excluding their children from the lesson. Despite recently losing the lawsuit, the group was preparing to appeal and was also petitioning to recall the three board members who voted to approve the curricula without an “opt-out” provision that would have allowed parents to remove their children from the 45 minute lesson plan.
According to the President of the Board of Education’s website, school administrators originally updated the curriculum in response to statistics garnered from a 2004 California Safe School Coalition report and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network’s 2005 National School Climate report.  These reports found, for example, that “LGBT students were five times more likely to report having skipped school in the past month because of safety concerns than the general population of students,” and that “students harassed based on actual or perceived sexual orientation are three times more likely to carry a weapon to school, to seriously consider suicide, or to make a plan for attempting suicide.”[2]
In accordance with California’s Hate Violence Prevention Act, schools are expected to implement “programs and instructional curricula that promote understanding, awareness, and appreciation of the contributions of people with diverse backgrounds and of harmonious relations in a diverse society.”[3] At a June 2008 Board of Education meeting, staff presented plans to update the school’s existing curricula to meet this requirement for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. The plan added one 45 minute lesson per year that focuses on age-appropriate discussions of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender expression. For example, the kindergarten lesson plan emphasizes the negative effects of name-calling and teasing, while the fifth grade lesson plan helps students recognize common stereotypes attributed to lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals.
The School Board approved the additions to the curricula on May 26th by a vote of 3–2. Reaction in the community was mixed.  Supporters of the program generally expressed hopes that the curriculum will contribute to a safer school environment. One Alameda teacher and parent wrote “I believe that it is important to begin this education at an early age, because children learn very early that words can hurt, and the bullying and harassment begin before the child has any understanding of the words that are used.”[4] In contrast, opponents of the curriculum often cited religious beliefs that informed their resistance to the program. One Alameda parent wrote “your job is to listen to the hundreds of parents who pled with you not to expose their innocent young children to indoctrination that goes against their deeply held beliefs. You not only ignored the wishes of parents, you insulted their faiths.”[5] Some opponents were also concerned that the additions were passed without an opt-out provision that would allow parents who object to remove their children from the classes without any negative consequences for the students.
In August 2009, twenty SERVE members filed a lawsuit against the school district with assistance from The Pacific Justice Institute (PJI). PJI is conservative legal group. The president of PJI is a vocal conservative in the state. He has, for example, testified against hate crimes legislation that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and supported California’s Proposition 8 referendum, which called for the definition of marriage as the union between one man and one woman. At a rally for Proposition 8 in Sacramento, CA, PJI’s president addressed the crowd with a speech that likened the defeat of the gay rights movement to the defeat of Adolf Hitler.[6]
Despite the lawsuit, the district supported the lessons through the fall and even secured a favorable ruling in court. The Superior Court judge ruled that the state’s “opt-out” law did not apply to the anti-bullying lessons.[7] A week later, however, in an effort to appease SERVE, the superintendent recommended new, broader anti-bullying lessons to the school board that do not focus specifically on sexual orientation and gender presentation. She also recommended that the new lessons be supplemented with children’s books that explicitly address six different kinds of discrimination including homophobia.[8] This new proposal was voted on and accepted by the school board in December.  
Parents opposed to the lessons have responded with skepticism to the idea of children’s books that address sexual orientation or gay families, while lesbian and gay parents have urged the district to retain the spirit of original curriculum. PJI attorneys had previously stated that they would not appeal the lawsuit if the school eliminated the lessons, but have yet to comment on the new lessons.
The superintendent explained that “There is not an off-the-shelf, perfect curriculum that is going to work for our community.” She intends to solicit book recommendations, ask for board approval of those recommendations in the next few months, and have the lesson plans finished for the 2010-11 school year.[9]  SIECUS will continue to monitor the situation.

[1] Lisa Leff, “SF Bay schools phase out gay-friendly curriculum,” Mercury News, 10 December 2009, accessed 11 December 2009, <>.

[2] The 2005 National Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools (New York: GLSEN, 2005), p.9, accessed 18 November 2009, <>; Molly O’Shaughnessy, et al., Safe Place to Learn: Consequences of Harassment Based on Actual or Perceived Sexual Orientation and Gender Non-Conformity and Steps for Making Schools Safe (San Francisco: California Safe Schools Coalition, January 2004), p.1, accessed 18 November 2009, <>.

[3] California Education Code, Section 233-233.8, accessed 2 November 2009 <>.

[4] Comments Received May 13 through May 18, 2009, Mike McMahon AUSD (May 2009), accessed 30 October 2009, <>.

[5] Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Curriculum in AUSD, Mike McMahon AUSD (August 2009), accessed 30 October 2009, <>.

[6] Getting To Know Brad Dacus, Right Wing Watch, People for the American Way (17 September 2009) accessed 30 October 2009, <>.

[7] Lis Leff, “SF Bay schools phase out gay-friendly curriculum.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.