A teacher at Wilson K-8 School may be facing district discipline after inviting a speaker from a Tucson lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group to address middle-school students.
David D. Linn, 27, invited the youth programs coordinator for Wingspan to speak to his Living Skills class Nov. 22. Wingspan is "Southern Arizona's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center," according to the center's literature. The Living Skills class has 11-to-14-year-old students enrolled.
The Amphitheater Public Schools administration is looking into if Linn - a first-year teacher who also teaches sixth-grade language arts - violated district policy concerning outside speakers, advertising in schools and technology resources, said Connie McFarland legal assistant to Todd Jaeger, the district's legal counsel (see related story page 6).
Amphi Superintendent Vicki Balentine declined commenting because "it is a personnel issue." Jaeger said he could not say what discipline Linn might be facing because "it concerns employee privacy."
Wingspan's Sarah Dahlen spoke to three classes of mixed sixth, seventh and eighth graders, showed a short documentary video in two of the classes and passed out brochures to all three classes detailing services available to youths through QueerVoice Lounge Youth Center and the Wingspan Youth Program. The QueerVoice Lounge is a joint effort of the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, Pima County Health Department and Wingspan, and is open to people aged 13 to 23 years old.
"Just Call Me Kade," a documentary about a transgender youth in Tucson, was the video shown to Wilson students, according to Kent Burbank, executive director of Wingspan. A transgender person is one who is born one gender but feels inside they are the opposite sex, said Burbank.
The brochure included a calendar of events for the QueerVoice and Wingspan Youth Programs, including tutoring sessions, volunteer opportunities, movie nights and safer sex workshops.
School administrators confiscated the brochures that day and sent a letter home to parents saying a guest speaker was invited "into the Living Skills classroom by the teacher to speak about a controversial subject which some may find offensive. The situation has been corrected as much as possible and such an incident will not occur again."
The communication did not detail what controversial subject was discussed in the class but said it is "common practice" for speakers to be cleared through administrators before they speak in any Wilson classroom.
Linn said he had not previewed the video and was not aware Dahlen would be handing out brochures.
"She said that sometimes she shows a video, depending on how the discussion is going in the class, but it wasn't certain," Linn said.
Linn also said he was unaware of a policy requiring administrative approval of guest speakers and if there was one, "it has never been enforced."
Diane Schlieder, Linn's mentor teacher at Wilson, agreed.
"I've been teaching for 30 years and this is my eighth at Wilson and I've never had to clear a speaker," she said. "The video thing came out two years ago and what a pain that is - to have to get a parent signature back to show something as classic as Gregory Peck in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' after we read the book. I looked at my policy handbook (after this incident) and I could not find any reference to clearing guest speakers."
Another Wilson teacher, Kaydel Casper, said she found the policy in the handbook.
"As an older teacher, I knew clearing speakers was in the handbook," Casper said. "Have I always followed all the policies? Probably not, because I am a very busy teacher. But I think our administration is fair and David will be fine. I just hate seeing this press focus happen to a new teacher. David is one of our best and brightest. Yes, he made an error in judgment, but it wasn't malicious and he didn't have an agenda. He thought he was doing the right thing. Have I made mistakes in my 30 years of teaching? Yes, many."
Wilson Principal Adrian Hannah said he didn't recall telling teachers at the first staff meeting of the year "that all speakers have to be cleared (but) I said if they are showing a video (they) have to have parental notification."
"I think this has to do with professional judgment," Hannah said. "When I say it is 'common practice' to get administrative approval for speakers, I'm referring to a different level (of speaker) than having someone's dad who's a dentist come in and talking about his job. If at any time an outside speaker were coming in to teach a group (on an issue of) any magnitude, I would expect the teachers would know to notify me. When the (Arizona Daily) Star's cartoonist - DAvid Fitzsimmons - came to speak, he was cleared."
Two other guest speakers have addressed Linn's class this year, both without prior administrative approval. The first was from Metro Water District who spoke about water conservation and the second was from the Center for Biological Diversity speaking about a range of environmental issues, Linn said.
Wilson administrators became aware of the Wingspan speaker Nov. 22 when a parent volunteer on campus that day decided to visit her child's Living Skills class, said Dana Redavid, administrative assistant to Wilson Principal Adrian Hannah.
"She went into the class during the presentation, got upset and came to the assistant principal," Redavid said.
Hannah was not at school that day.
Linn said he did not realize the Wingspan speaker would cause such uproar.
"The way I was raised, in my family, and in my immediate world, I do not see this as a controversial issue," he said.
He said his girlfriend, also a teacher at Wilson, had heard Wilson students use derogatory terms for homosexuals and she suggested to Linn that perhaps a speaker from Wingspan would be appropriate "to address tolerance and tell the kids they just can't use those words because they hurt people."
"My error was not realizing that the community of Wilson would react the way they did," Linn said. "There is no real curriculum for this class, I've talked to other teachers in the district who teach it and pretty much the nature of the course is what the teacher decides to do with it. I figure that if it is related to the real world in any way, it is related to Living Skills."
Hannah said "Lion's Quest Skills for Adolescence," published by Quest International in Baltimore, is the approved curriculum for the Living Skills class. Patrick Nelson, Amphi associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the Quest curriculum has been used in the district since 1997.
Jaeger said the legal implications concerning Linn's actions have to do with the 1984 federal Hatch Amendment (Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment) which "precludes school districts from talking to kids about sensitive issues like drug use, home life, etc., unless you notify the parents and allow them to opt out of the program."
Specifically, the amendment states, "Parents have the right to be assured their children's beliefs and moral values are not undermined by the schools. Pupils have the right to have and to hold their values and moral standards without direct or indirect manipulations by the schools through the curricula, textbooks, audio-visual materials or supplementary assignments."
In addition, Jaeger said, there is a section of the Title 15 education statute on AIDS education that specifies Arizona sex-ed curriculum cannot "portray homosexuality as a normal or healthy lifestyle."
When asked if all Amphi teachers are aware of these statutes and policies, Jaeger said health and sex-education teachers are, but other teachers may not be because their classes are "probably not the kind of classroom we would have had this kind of speaker."
As parents found out about the Wingspan visit, they began complaining, said Wilson administrators.
"Friday, my daughter came home from school with this letter and I asked her what it was all about," said Wilson parent Patty Raskob. "She said she didn't really know, but that a lady had come and talked to them and said she was bisexual. I was really in shock … I didn't even know what that term meant until I was in my 20's. I feel like they have stolen away part of (my child's) innocence."
The fact that a speaker of whom the administration was unaware was on campus appears to have upset parents as much as the content of the visit.
"The main thing is that someone was brought into the school that the administration didn't know about is very serious - who knows who could be on campus?" said parent Earl Wheatley. "And (the subject addressed) was extremely controversial. I think this is absolutely too young to talk about (homosexuality.) Parents tell their children what they have a right to know and a need to know. At 11 years old, they don't need to hear about bisexuality. I think you have to push the envelope pretty far to think that a child under 16 or 17 has a need to know any of that."
Wilson parent Denise Pierce said discussing homosexuality is "totally inappropriate" for middle school.
"They are just learning about their own sexuality," she said. "This is not a gray area, this is definitely crossing the line. Talking about (homosexuality) with kids is a parent's job."
Wingspan's Burbank agreed with Pierce that children become aware of their sexuality in middle school and said that is the exact reason lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons should be addressed then.
"The reality of it is that we see youth who are 12, 13 and 14 years old in our programs all the time," he said. "Youth are coming out (about their sexuality) at younger and younger ages and if you aren't surprised that heterosexual youth are aware of their sexuality, it shouldn't surprise you that LGBT youth are also."
Burbank said Wingspan normally does programs in high schools through the Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs, but "we have been in another middle school." He declined to name the school, saying, "I don't want to add to the controversy," but said the problem at Wilson "has never happened any other place we've done programs."
"I don't believe there is grounds for the parents to be upset," he said. "We're not going into the schools and never have and never would in any way promote being gay, nor do we talk about sex. We address a reality that is already in the schools … and address the violence against gays that is a huge problem for young gay people. National statistics show that 40 percent of LGBT youth have been physically harassed and 20 percent have been assaulted and that 95 percent of the youth in school hear derogatory terms concerning gays.
"We are not going into schools to indoctrinate. Kids often challenge our speakers - they say, 'The Bible says (homosexuality) is wrong'," Burbank explained. "We say that is fine, but it doesn't give anyone the right to commit acts of violence verbally, physically or emotionally against (homosexual) persons. Just like if you don't like Jewish people, you can't torment Jewish kids."
Wheatley said he also was upset that the Wilson administration took the brochures away from the children before they came home.
"To me it seems (the administration) was kind of trying to make it seem like it wasn't a big deal," Wheatley said. "I think they were trying to keep the evidence from the parents."
"Those were collected because it was one thing we had the ability to control and rectify," Jaeger said, adding that parents can view the brochure at administration offices.
Wingspan's Burbank said he has called Wilson administrators to try to set up a meeting to discuss the Nov. 22 incident, but administrators had not returned his calls.
Schlieder said that the problem is not one of policy, but of inexperience.
"His only real mistake was in not understanding the (Wilson) community. This is a very demanding (parental) environment," she said. "David's seen intolerance among the students - they can't handle anyone being different - so he thought this would be a good idea (to bring in Wingspan) to help teach them tolerance. He didn't know exactly what would transpire. He says he made a mistake in judgment, but all new teachers make mistakes. And sixth-grade parents have a tendency to be more protective. I've seen his language arts lesson plans and I can tell you they are outstanding. Plus he likes kids. I don't want to lose a good young teacher over something like this."
AMPHI POILICES ON GUESTS
Some district policies are in question concerning the Nov. 22 visit to Wilson K-8 School by a Wingspan representative, according to Connie McFarland, legal assistant to Amphitheater Legal Counsel Todd Jaeger. The pertinent sections are cited below:
Policy IJND-R, I-6311, concerning technology resources (movies/videos/software programs): "…In middle schools, teachers must notify parents in advance when they plan to show movies/videos with a rating of PG-13 …it is the responsibility of Amphitheater Public Schools employees to use sound professional judgment in the selection of media to be used with students …If a video, film (or) computer software program selected to be shown in school has potential for controversy or contains any element listed on form IJND-E (adult language, human sexual behavior, violence, graphic content, illicit drug or alcohol use), then form IJND-E shall be completed and sent to parents to obtain approval in writing for their child to view it. School personnel must preview all media before showing to students."
Policy IJOB, I-6550, concerning community resource persons/speakers:
"…Special lecturers, when qualified in their subjects, may be requested to speak before classes and assemblies of students of the school. Appropriate criteria and procedures shall be established by the administration for the consideration of such requests."
Policy KHB, K-2250, concerning advertising in schools:
"…No advertising material may be distributed to students that, in the opinion of school authorities, would contribute to the personal gain of an individual, business or company … samples, calendars, supply catalogs, etc., maybe distributed to staff members for study, purchasing, or routine classroom use, with administrative approval.