Shannon Drury is just one of many parents who, despite negative publicity, are indeed thrilled that three Minneapolis schools are being considered for the controversial Welcoming Schools pilot project. Because the project focuses on family diversity and bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, attention has focused on parents who have moral or religious objections to the curriculum — with little focus on the majority of parents who support the project.
“I truly believe that the best education for a very young child is how to get along with others,” said Drury. She, her husband and her son support Welcoming schools. “The three R’s are an important part of early education, of course, but children aren’t reading Tolstoy in kindergarten; they’re learning to take turns, to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ to listen to one another respectfully, and to learn about the different people in their community.”
The Welcoming Schools curriculum does just that. Its 128-page guide is meant to supplement existing anti-bullying programming — programming that focuses on various types of bullying, but leaves out the children of LGBT families and LGBT students themselves. Last week a designated committee met to discuss the curriculum and decide whether to include part or all of it in school programming this fall Hale, Jefferson and Park View schools. Its decision will be forwarded to the Office of Academic Affairs for consideration in the next several weeks.
“The home is not a particularly diverse place,” said Drury. “Children are curious creatures; they want to know about kids whose coloring differs from theirs, about kids in wheelchairs, about kids who were born in other countries, about kids with different family structures. Attending public school is a social education that occurs every day, and it’s an education that I can’t give them on my own. I need my community’s help.”
Drury first heard about the guide when an e-mail from Hale Community School Principal Bob Brancale was sent out to parents announcing a community meeting in early March. Drury didn’t see it as a big deal. “I trusted Bob when he said that he was fed up with the anti-gay slurs in the school. He is on the front lines with Hale kids every day, and his only concern is for their safety and well-being,” she said.
But a handful of parents who did not want their kids taught about family diversity, mainly because in their eyes it would teach about sex (it doesn’t), were set to derail the guide. “Unfortunately, I did hear through the Hale grapevine that there were a number of very angry parents and community members who were planning on being present at the March meeting, so I decided to go,” Drury said. “When I mentioned the meeting to my family, my son Elliott insisted that he be allowed to attend with me. He felt strongly that he needed to speak up for the Hale kids who might be feeling unsafe.”
According to national survey of students by the National Mental Health Association, 78 percent of kids have witnessed anti-gay harassment, 93 percent report hearing “fag” and “queer” used in a derogatory way, and 51 percent reported hearing anti-gay slurs on a daily basis. Brancale says around half of bullying reports at Hale involve anti-gay slurs.
“My son spoke out on behalf of his close friends, saying, ‘Two moms, two dads, it doesn’t matter.’ He got a huge round of applause,” said Drury.
The Drurys are close friends with a lesbian couple that has three kids, including one Elliot’s age. “When my son realized that his buddy’s family was different, his only problem was jealousy — his buddy had two moms while he had only one! What a ripoff!” said Drury. “This just reinforced my instinct that children are born without prejudice. They learn fear and distrust from the grown-ups around them.”
Fear and distrust of the Welcoming Schools guide has been promoted by a handful of parents who have started a blog to campaign against the curriculum. And while the parents may have good intentions, their vocal criticism has earned them the support of local and national groups opposed to the LGBT community, including the Minnesota Family Council and the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian law group. The latter filed a brief stating that Welcoming Schools could open the schools up to a lawsuit. But despite the negative press surrounding the community meeting in March — including a scathing column against the anti-gay bullying curriculum by the Star Tribune’s Katherine Kersten — the meeting went pretty well for the Welcoming Schools pilot program. Drury recalled, “The buzz following the meeting did not reflect the outpouring of support from most parents and staff who were present.”
Indeed, 19 out of 23 teachers at Hale support the curriculum, and gay, lesbian and straight parents testified in support of it. Despite the opposition, Drury is hopeful it will be implemented.
“Every kid deserves to know that they are safe and welcomed, no matter what,” she said. “Isn’t it better to err on the side of love and respect? I think so.”