At the National Education Association (NEA) convention on July 5, NEA President Bob Chase announced that Resolution New B–which called for new school programs aimed at ensuring a “safe and inclusive environment” for gay and lesbian students–had been withdrawn. Instead, said Chase, a task force representing a variety of points of view will be established to look at the issues relating to sexual orientation in a “thorough and meaningful way.”

While controversy surrounding the resolution was widespread, particularly from the conservative religious group Focus on the Family, the NEA said it is in no way backing down from the issue.

“We had wide support from our gay and lesbian caucus” as well as from other NEA delegates to withdraw the resolution, with assurance that there would be a task force to look at the issue in holistic manner, said NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons. “Far from backing down, as some would like to say, we have gone beyond what a resolution could do.”

Although Lyons couldn’t say yet what the specific charge of the task force will be or who will be named to it, she did say it would be looking at issues related to diversity and discrimination and what schools should do to address the issues.

Chase contends that the NEA is working together to find a way to address the needs and problems confronting gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students and educational employees. Although he said the NEA believes children should get their moral guidance from their parents, communities of faith, religious leaders, and religious texts, he argued that does not mean schools should be “values-free.”

“Some critics want the public schools to be an agent of moral doctrine, condemning children and adults when they are not in accord with Biblical precepts,” he says. “We believe it is impossible to create a safe haven for children–physically safe and emotionally secure–while condemning their beliefs.”

The resolution was designed, in part, to allow for the creation of programs that deal with problems such as suicide and risky behaviors.

But while no one would argue that children in schools don’t deserve to be safe, those opposed to the resolution believe it went far beyond taking another step to protect children from harassment, discrimination, and other forms of persecution.

Focus on the Family claimed the NEA was “scattering seeds of pro-gay ideology through the minds and hearts of America’s children.” Urged by James C. Dobson, the group’s president, Focus on the Family staged protests outside the NEA convention in Los Angeles.

Did the controversy contribute to the withdrawal of the resolution? Absolutely not, said Lyons: “For Focus on the Family and others to say we’re backing down is a complete misunderstanding of how the NEA works and is totally absurd.”

The task force will be asked to report to the NEA’s board of directors for possible action at its February 2002 meeting in Washington.

sticky issue for educators

It’s one thing for teachers and administrators to take a stand on “easy” issues, but as for addressing the needs of gay and lesbian students–an issue that rarely fails to arouse disputes among varying factions–educators have become “gun shy,” Lyons said.

“Every time our members deal with anything controversial, they can be threatened with their jobs,” she said. “This is a hot-button issue.”

That’s not to say, however, that teachers are against teaching tolerance.

A 1996 report from the nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda states that 82 percent of teachers support teaching “tolerance of others.” But Lyons’ statement does, perhaps, explain why Resolution New B raised such a storm. According to the report, only 44 percent of teachers (compared with 61 percent of the general public) favor teaching respect for people who are homosexual.

“It is understandable that teachers are reluctant to take sides on controversial issues,” the report reads. “Whereas most citizens can say ‘how things should be’ with little consequence, teachers must be concerned with alienating parents and significant groups within their community.”

Educators must walk a fine line in promoting tolerance, diversity, and the overall safety of all students, without encroaching on the beliefs of some parents, Lyons said.

But whether recommendations from the soon-to-be-appointed NEA task force will help them walk this line–or create more problems–remains to be seen.

Last year, the NEA and other education groups were criticized for endorsing a 12-page booklet that was distributed to school leaders, called “Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth: A Primer for Principals, Educators, and School Personnel.”

The booklet condemned what it called “reparative therapy” for homosexual youth and called for safer learning environments for gay students.

Bruce Hunter, director of public affairs for the American Association of School Administrators, said his organization agreed with the message of the booklet. Still, he said, the publication was likely to be used by school administrators “based on community values” alone.

In June, the independent group Human Rights Watch released a study claiming that gay students may be at risk because of constant bullying in school–a problem compounded by the tendency of school officials to overlook such treatment. To combat the problem, the group called for the federal Education Department to more closely monitor schools.

Links:

National Education Association, 1201 16th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036; phone (202) 833-4000
http://www.nea.org.

Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995; phone (800) 232-6459
http://www.family.org.

See also “Gay tolerance booklet divides educators,”
http://www.eschoolnews.org/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=1580.