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A surefire way to spark debate in the schools is to include the words "gay," "transgender" and "same-gender families" into a district policy. And it especially lights the conversational fires when that policy is geared toward little children barely thinking about sexual identity.
The Juneau School District's counseling curriculum committee will be looking at goals and standards for counselors in February or March. Some parents objected when the draft curriculum included the following goal for elementary-school kids: "Learn about acceptance, tolerance and respect for individual and group differences, e.g. students with special needs; students who learn differently; gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender students; students with different cultural, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, etc."
Another part of the policy calls for recognition of differences in types of families, such as adoptive, step, same-gender and single-parent families.
Some of the complaints against the curriculum are thinly veiled homophobic reactions from people who want to pass along their own bigotry to their children. On the other hand, anyone who raises questions about the policy runs the risk of being labeled a homophobe by extremists at the other end of the spectrum.
The policy definitely warrants discussion. One odd aspect of the proposed curriculum is that it explicitly refers to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students in the section for kindergarten to grade 5, but doesn't for the higher grades, when kids truly are realizing their sexual identities. For the older age groups the policy merely states: "Recognize, accept, respect and appreciate individual differences."
Transgender issues are likely to be one of the last things on a first-grader's mind. It would make a lot more sense to use the general wording for the elementary-school curriculum as well.
Also, there's no good reason to single out minorities in the policy. Instead of listing the types of kids and families most likely to draw abuse and bigoted comments, the curriculum should be worded so that the focus is on treating everyone equally. To list only the alternative sexual orientations accentuates their differences. It also ignores the fact that prejudice does not come only from the majority group. Gays and lesbians can be close-minded and condescending about heterosexuals, just as blacks and Natives can be hateful toward whites. The idea is to eliminate intolerance from all directions.
Critics of the curriculum have expressed concern that listing types of sexual relationships will trigger more sexual curiosity in kids. But school counselors say that this curriculum is not about sex education, but about treating all sexual orientations with respect when the topic comes up in a counseling session or classroom discussion.
Another criticism of fostering tolerance for same-sex families is that it goes against the type of marriage allowed by law. Just because gays and lesbians do not enjoy the same legal benefits that straight couples do, it's not illegal to be gay. It's not as if school counselors will be encouraging tolerance of criminal behavior by preventing insults toward a child who has two fathers.
Intolerance in the schools undermines a learning atmosphere. It's a lot easier for students to focus on math and reading when they aren't worried about being bullied on the playground. Designers of the counseling curriculum are not only trying to develop basic human values in students, but create an environment that fosters learning. While the district's curriculum needs some fine-tuning in its wording, its intent is good and the district should continue to nurture greater tolerance and respect among students.