March 4, 2010

Bay State practices not driven by gay-marriage law

MATT WICKENHEISER

— By

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Tom Mountain, a school committee candidate in Newton, Mass., opposes some lessons being taught in his local schools.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Meg Soens has supported diversity education in the Lexington, Mass., school system since 1999, well before the state legalized gay marriage. “This town is progressive.”

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Staff Writer

LEXINGTON, Mass. — The same-sex marriage debate has raged for months in Maine, but much of the rhetoric has involved another New England state: Massachusetts.

The liberal stronghold of the region was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2004. Four states have since joined Massachusetts -- New Hampshire, Iowa, Connecticut and Vermont.

Maine's Legislature and governor legalized same-sex marriage in May. On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to repeal the law.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Maine have suggested that if the law stands, schools will teach children about gay marriage. It happened in Massachusetts, they argue, pointing in particular to well-publicized parent-school conflicts in Lexington.

A visit to Massachusetts does shows that in some liberal towns, schools take education about gay families very seriously, and began incorporating it into curriculums years before same-sex marriage was legal.

But in more conservative communities, the subject of gay families and same-sex marriage simply hasn't been a concern.

''It hasn't had any effect,'' said Charles Gobron, superintendent of the Northborough-Southborough Schools. ''For all the issues we face, that has not been one of them.''

Massachusetts doesn't require schools to teach about same-sex or opposite-sex marriage, said J.C. Considine, director of board and media relations for the state Department of Education.

The state does make health education recommendations. For example, by fifth grade, students should be able to define sexual orientation using correct terms such as heterosexual, gay and lesbian. By the end of the eighth grade, they should be able to identify sexual discrimination and harassment.

By high school graduation, they should be able to ''identify possible determinants of sexual orientation and analyze the weight of each in light of available research,'' and ''describe the influence of gender on identity and self-concept.''

At issue in Lexington were books sent home with, or read to, elementary school students that dealt with same-gender families. They were in the schools well before 2004.

''This town is progressive,'' said Meg Soens, a gay parent who began working with Lexington schools on diversity training for staff members regarding same-sex families in 1999. At the time, two of her children were about to enter kindergarten.

''I wanted my kids -- and the kids of other gay and lesbian parents -- to feel safe and to have self-respect and not be shamed at school,'' she said.

Other parents had warned her that the word ''gay'' was often used as an insult by kids in school, so she began working with other parents in the schools to increase sensitivity.

''It was time,'' Soens said.

Over the next few years, various schools used the training, and libraries began stocking books that acknowledged same-sex families.

Soens said it was important for the kids of gay parents to see books that acknowledged their types of families.

''Books are like windows and mirrors, they tell you that you're part of the world,'' said Soens. ''Those little kids who read them need to know they belong there.''

Lexington is working on a new curriculum that mentions gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in various lessons, she said. In community discussions, parents with special-needs children are asking that lessons addressing family situations like theirs be included in the curriculum change.

Laura Tully, a straight parent who has been involved in the issue, said same-sex family education was a progression of civil rights work that had been done in Lexington for years.

''It was more of the same,'' she said. ''To me, gay marriage never had anything to do with this.''

But critics said Massachusetts' law change affected schools, despite the fact that marriage isn't part of the curriculum.

Brian Cameker, president of MassResistance, a group that opposes same-sex marriage, contends that the law accelerated the advance of a ''homosexual agenda'' that was already evident in schools.

''Immediately in the schools, it started to have a huge effect,'' Cameker said. ''It became extremely aggressive, and they said there's nothing you can do to stop it. Before, they held back a little.''

The argument that marriage isn't in the curriculum, so same-sex marriage won't be discussed, is disingenuous, said David Parker, formerly of Lexington.

''It doesn't have to be in the formal curriculum. You may not see in the formal curriculum that we're going to have a gay marriage lesson on May 25,'' he said. Instead, teachers bring up the concept of gay marriage during teaching moments, Parker said.

While the same-sex marriage issue made headlines in Lexington, it hasn't been brought up in other communities' schools.

''My sense right now is that no, we're not really talking about it,'' said John Leahy, a school committee member in Lowell.

''In Lowell, it probably should be discussed. It needs to be -- it's not taboo like it used to be. Life's changing, and people need to get up with it,'' he said.

The school system in the ethnically diverse, generally blue-collar city is strengthening sex education in middle school and high school health classes, he said.

The only outcry, said Leahy, is that some parents don't want their kids talking about birth control.

Gobron, the Northborough-Southborough superintendent, said same-sex families are ''just a fact of life. I cannot think of any issue that I've had around gay marriage (in the schools).''

Kathleen Doherty teaches U.S. history to ninth-graders in Harvard, a rural and affluent bedroom community in central Massachusetts. Doherty, who is heterosexual and married, is the advisor to the school's Gay Straight Alliance, which has existed since 1996.

In any given year, she'll discuss current events with her class, and sometimes gay marriage and same-sex families come up in discussions. But she has made no formal lesson shifts.

''Has my curriculum changed? No. As it is, it's hard to get to everything you're supposed to get to,'' Doherty said, ''never mind throwing in extras.''

Students are aware that same-sex marriage is legal in the state, she said, and they may raise the topic during civil rights discussions, but the issue doesn't appear to be that important to them.

''This is really not a big deal,'' she said.

Whether same-sex marriage will become a big deal in Maine schools is a matter of speculation. Supporters of Maine's new law, along with education officials, have noted that statewide curriculum guidelines don't address heterosexual marriage, nor would they deal with gay marriage.

Local school boards determine what is discussed and taught, Maine officials have said, and whatever happens to the state's same-sex marriage law will have no effect on that.

Maine law includes a religious accommodation for parents if ''course content conflicts with sincerely held religious beliefs,'' Attorney General Janet Mills has said.

So if parents have religious objections to something being taught, they can have their children opt out of the lesson.

In Massachusetts, there are opt-out provisions for sex-education-related lessons, physical education classes (with a doctor's note), and immunization requirements. School districts also can have opt-out policies.

Parker, the former Lexington resident, tried to persuade school officials to notify him of lesson plans in advance. He was arrested and charged with criminal trespassing for failing to leave a school after officials refused his request.

He and his wife and another couple sued the district over the curriculum, book selections and the parents' inability to pull their children from lessons they found inappropriate.

The couples lost the case and an appeal, and the Supreme Court declined to take up the matter. Both couples have since moved out of Massachusetts.

While the Lexington case is over, the dispute over the law and its effect on Massachusetts schools is not.

Tom Mountain, a Newton resident, is running for the school committee in that town with the same-sex marriage and school curriculum issue as a key piece of his campaign.

''The state, schools, have no right to teach small children about issues of sexuality,'' Mountain said. ''It's a family rights issue.''

He said gay activists promote a same-sex marriage and gay family curriculum in liberal communities, then try to move into other communities.

Mountain acknowledged that, apart from some conflict after the 2004 law change, the issue has quieted down.

''These issues haven't come up a lot lately,'' he said. ''It's not out there right now -- (opponents) have been so worn down.''

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

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