Web Extra! PTO video defending its gay-friendly training

A group of Beye School parents are questioning why district resources were paid to an outside organization to train teachers about bullying issues related to students of gay and lesbian parents. Such training, this group of parents argue, already exists in the district.

That view was expressed last Tuesday at the school’s PTO meeting by parents Margaret Brown, Wendy Daniels and Tammy Schulz. Reading from a prepared statement, Brown questioned why the school brought in Shannon Sullivan, director of Illinois Safe Schools Network, a support organization for gay students and same-sex parents, to conduct the training.

Speaking to Wednesday Journal Tuesday, Brown said the district’s Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports initiative, or PBIS, already addresses how to support students who are bullied for being gay or having same-sex parents. Sullivan spoke at last week’s PTO meeting and has given a presentation to teachers at two previous school institute days this past fall. The resources her group provides to schools include videos on accepting same-sex parents as part of a school community. Brown maintained that such a message was not needed in Oak Park schools because the community is already welcoming to kids and families of all backgrounds, including gays and lesbians.

But she and the other parents also don’t believe that homosexuality and same-sex parentage should be introduced as issues to kids in elementary schools.

“The homosexual lifestyle or the sexual orientation of a student’s parents should not be discussed, not in training or in the curriculum when it involves 5 to 11 year olds,” Brown said, adding that there are more Beye parents who share her concern.

She added that the school has had only one notable incident in the last year where a student with gay parents was harassed by peers. Brown insisted that such incidents are not an issue for Beye or the district.

Beye Principal Jonathan Ellwanger said, however, that one such incident is one too many for the district. The specific incident occurred last spring and involved a student with two moms. The school’s School Improvement Team then facilitated bringing in Sullivan. Ellwanger said that while there hasn’t been another reported infraction this school year, there are instances with some kids using inappropriate language concerning gay related issues in the building. Ellwanger stressed that the school felt this needed additional attention.

“We’re not looking to make this a bigger issue than it is, but if it’s a problem at all, it’s a problem for our school that we need to address,” he said.

Concerning the statement read at the PTO meeting, Ellwanger would not comment, saying that he would speak to the parents privately about their concerns. Michele Brandt, co-chair of the Beye PTO, said many parents were respectful of the dissenting parents’ view, but did disagree with some of it.

There was also confusion about what the parents were going say at the meeting to begin with. Brown said she sent an e-mail to Ellwanger before the PTO meeting to have him review and approve their statement. She said he never responded to that request. She added that they also wanted to know where they would be allowed to speak on the night’s agenda. Still, no response, Brown said. She ended up speaking at the end of the meeting. Ellwanger again did not want to respond, maintaining that those were private conversations he had with the parents.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

Thank you Ms. Sullivan, for your presentation. Thank you to the PTO for allowing us to make this statement.

When we learned of plans to bring Ms. Sullivan to our school, a few parents approached Mr. E to find out why this program was being introduced to our school. Mr. E explained that some students had used the word “gay” in a derogatory way during the 2008-09 year. We were sad to hear this. He told us that the SIT (School Improvement Team) recommended that Beye address this. We asked if our present anti-bullying program – PBIS, was not sufficient in addressing this behavior. He stated that fortunately this school year, there had been no incidences of this but that he felt there was still a missing component to the PBIS, thus Ms. Sullivan was invited and presented her LGBT in-service for the Beye teachers.

We assume that it would be fair to say that a “baseline assessment of the current climate regarding sexual orientation and gender identity” at Beye school would show that Beye School was already a welcoming school with a strong sense of unity and family, and respect for all. The baseline for incidences of LGBT related bullying at Beye this school year is ZERO.

That is already our strength. No, our school is not perfect, but to portray our school as one that fosters a sense of exclusion to certain groups, or as one that feels unsafe, couldn’t be further from the truth. This is my 9th year at Beye School, and I have never felt excluded. Oak Park is also a very welcoming community to people of the LGBT lifestyle, and District 97 states publicly that this is so.

I do, however, think there is a group that the SIT team should focus on, whose “baseline statistic” for concern would be far from zero. That group is African-American families. African American families with either a single mother trying her hardest to make ends meet, and therefore not often present at the school, or a grandmother who’s struggling to raise a second generation of kids with no internet and no cell phone. In my experience, these are the families that tend to get overlooked here at Beye. As a community, we have taken steps through the years in order to reach out to, and include everyone in our Beye family. We haven’t fully succeeded with those families, and I personally would like to see more efforts and resources aimed at including them.

Statistics also support that this group is overlooked. The achievement gap between Caucasian and African American children at Beye school is alarming. And yet, financial resources were spent by the Beye School PTO to hire Shannon Sullivan to provide not only today’s presentation, but also to provide teacher training during an in-service Institute Day in December. There are a total of 3 institute days for teacher training the entire year. So, 1/3 of teacher training here at Beye focused on an issue at our school that had already been addressed through our anti-bullying program. Precious time and money was spent on this, rather than on a documented serious issue such as the achievement gap.

According to our school report card for 2008-2009,

  • 3rd grade, 95% of white students met or exceeded the academic standard for reading, 63% of black students did the same, meaning 37% of black students were below grade level for reading!
  • For mathematics 100% of white students met or exceeded the academic standard, whereas 81% of black students did the same – leaving 19% below grade level.
  • In 4th grade, 97% of white students met or exceeded the academic standard for reading, for black students the number was 69%, leaving a whopping 31% of black students who were below grade level for reading. 31%!
  • In 5th grade, the percentage of black students below grade level for reading was an unbelievable 41%! And for math it was 27%!
  • And you’re telling us that it’s justifiable to spend our resources to pay a consultant to train us to be more sensitive to the LGBT community and its issues? Are the children of the same sex couples or LGBT parents below grade level in any category? Are they leaving this school and entering middle school at an academic disadvantage which only snowballs into entering high school at an even greater disadvantage? How ridiculous it is that our priorities have taken this turn.

I am sorry for the experiences of the OPRF high school students presented tonight. I wonder however, what it would be like if tonight, African American students represented in the statistics I just read were to share what their middle school and high school years were like. Would we hear something like this?

“I was mocked because I can’t read,” or “I feel stupid every moment of my life because I can’t even do basic math.” “My future options are limited because I can’t read at the 6th grade level and I am a senior in high school.” Everyday for them is a Day of Silence, because they were never equipped with the skills to participate in a class discussion because they couldn’t read the material.

Our final, and most important point is that this topic is one of morals, preferences, and opinions. Regardless of how any one of us feels personally about the issue of homosexuality, and about gay and lesbian families, the subject is considered a moral issue by a large percentage of our society. It is an ongoing debate on complex questions about how people become gay and whether or not they can change their sexual orientation. Therefore, to present one view of this issue without affording equal treatment to both sides of the debate, is really not education at all – for us as parents, or for the teachers.

Were both sides of the issue presented to us just now, or to our teachers in the in-service? Was it shared with the teachers that youth struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction can pursue change if they wish to do so? Was the information shared with the teachers with neutrality, stating that the school and the district neither agreed or disagreed with the material and that the information being provided was the opinion of some, but definitely not all? I would venture to say no, it wasn’t, based on what we just saw.

We do not have an issue with the people who have chosen to live in this lifestyle. We respect them as people and don’t want anyone bullied or teased or treated in a derogatory manner. We do, however, unequivocally disagree with the topic of homosexuality being introduced, taught to, shared with or discussed with our children in the public classroom. This topic is completely inappropriate for children in K-5th grade. Expecting us to believe that this information is meant only for teachers to increase their knowledge and understanding of the LGBT lifestyle, but that this training won’t in any way be transferred to the classroom is insulting. Were videos and/or books recommended to them to use in the classroom? Yes! This is unacceptable, and as taxpayers and stakeholders in this community, we want to be assured by Mr. Ellwanger and District 97, that such inappropriate material will not be exposed to our children by any teacher, staff or administrator at Beye School.

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