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Lesson Learned: CA School District Ends Mandatory Gay Awareness Program

By L. K. Regan

In May, Alameda, CA's school board approved a program called Lesson 9, a curriculum designed to prevent anti-gay bullying. The program was wildly controversial, sparking a lawsuit, protests, and threats to recall the board members. This week the San Francisco Bay Area school district has reversed itself, tabling Lesson 9 in favor of a program addressing multiple kinds of bias, including against gays.

Lesson 9 was a 45-minute program, intended to be taught once per year in each grade of the Alameda schools, beginning with kindergartners. From the beginning, the program caused a rift in the generally tranquil life of this small island community that prides itself on Victorian homes and a family-friendly lifestyle. Gay parents with children in the Alameda schools wanted their kids protected from bullying; parents with religious objections to homosexuality did not want their children introduced to the subject at school. In the broader national debate over gay marriage, Lesson 9 quickly became a cautionary tale in what education in a gay-friendly America might look like, particularly since it was the only form of bullying addressed in the schools.

In the face of relentless threats and pressure, the school board voted four to one to scrap the program and replace it with a new curriculum covering multiple forms of bias. The new program will put together a group of books on six types of bias that can lead to bullying, with the books to be selected over the coming months. Said School Superintendent Kirsten Vital, "There is not an off-the-shelf, perfect curriculum that is going to work for our community." She will be seeking suggestions for books to accompany the new program, intending to bring them to the board for approval. Until she does so, Lesson 9 will continue as a lame duck educational effort.

Strong feelings abounded at the board's meeting on Tuesday. Anti-Lesson 9 board member Trish Spencer said of the program, "I believe this has torn apart our community. This has been an extremely unfortunate episode in Alameda." Others disagreed. Kathy Passmore, gay mother of two children in the Alameda schools, said that, "I can't believe that anyone would be against anything that would make any child feel safer." And mother Kerry Cook disputed the entire philosophy of Lesson 9, revealing (to gasps of shock) that she had switched from gay to straight. "Our kids are to be taught a theory that gives them no hope of change," she said. Add to this the roughly 200 advocacy emails received by the school district in recent weeks and it is clear that the controversy over Lesson 9 has opened a big can of worms in this sleepy little city by the bay.