CAMBRIDGE — A controversy over material on human sexuality that was introduced in health classes took up both public comment sessions at Thursday night’s meeting of the Cambridge Central School Board of Education.
Parents, grandparents, teachers and a CCS student spoke out.
The controversy started Oct. 30 when Jackie Hall, the school’s health teacher, had a speaker from the Pride Center of the Capital Region, an LGBT advocacy group, give a presentation on human sexuality to students in grades 7 and 10. The presentation included written material about sex, sexual orientation, gender and gender expression, and a glossary of terms related to those topics.
The seventh-graders and 10th-graders were supposed to receive different materials but both groups received the high school packet. Some parents were offended by the information given to the middle school students.
Hall was placed on administrative leave while the administration reviewed the situation. She returned to work Thursday.
Thursday’s school board meeting was the first since the incident. Speakers’ comments ranged from angry accusations that the school had allowed the theft of children’s innocence to criticism that the administration was failing to educate students about diversity and not protecting LGBT students.
At the beginning of the first public comment session, board president Neil Gifford read a statement that the subject matter and topics were “all in accordance with the New York state required state health curriculum.” He acknowledged “parents’ concerns that some material was not age-appropriate,” and cited measures to ensure that parents would know ahead of time what material was to be covered in the class.
Some parents were not satisfied. One man said he showed the material to gay friends and co-workers and said they told him it wasn’t appropriate for grade 7.
“I’m upset with 11-year-olds hearing what they did,” he said. “This was going too far.”
Megan Olson said the teacher failed in her responsibility to see that the material was age-appropriate. The packet “included 15 terms for sexual positions,” she said. “Kids don’t need to know the terms for gender reassignment surgery.”
Another woman who has grandchildren at the school said there was “no need for 11-year-olds to know the terms for changing what they were born with.”
“Our children are here in a protected environment from garbage,” she said.
Referring to a newscast on a Capital District TV channel, she added if Channel 6 thought the material was inappropriate to be read on the air, “how was it appropriate for kids?”
A father said his opposition had “nothing to do with gays, nothing to do with transgender,” but said the administration and board had failed in their responsibility.
“You let this into these young kids. You just stole the innocence of our kids,” he said.
Travis Kline, a teacher in another school district who lives in Cambridge, pointed out that sexual orientation and gender identity “aren’t choices.” He said he was disturbed by what he called a lack of leadership on the issue and was concerned by the message that was giving students.
“The school is often the first line of defense for these issues,” Kline said. “You’re responsible for educating all students. These (information) packets may be all these LGBT students have” to help them understand themselves.
Sarah McMillan, a CCS teacher, asked why the teacher’s choice of curriculum led to an administrative leave.
“That’s an administration failure, not a teacher failure,” she said. “People talking about ‘choosing this lifestyle’ and ‘garbage language’ tells me that more of this education has to be done, not less. Silence breeds hatred.”
Student Tyler Betit said he was in the first class to receive the material. “To say (the teacher) is stealing kids’ innocence is false. What I hear in the hallways makes these packets look like nothing. There’s nothing in the packets that a mature seventh-grader or high school student can’t handle. I’ve been bullied strictly because of my sexuality. I wish the board and parents could get this curriculum. No other student deserves to go through what I have to go through.”
Parent Linda Salzer said she could empathize with parents who were upset, “but I think what’s happened since is worse. There’s no reason to fire the teacher or persecute her. The students feel like they’re being attacked. Enough! We’ve had enough of this.”
Parent Matthew Patterson said the board had missed an opportunity to bring people together on a divisive topic.
“Let’s get both sides together and talk about it. We should have created a larger discussion,” Patterson said.
“The discussion doesn’t have to end tonight,” Gifford said.