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Madison schools hear proposals to limit discussion of race, sexual orientation

MADISON – In a bid to give parents more control of their children’s educations, a Madison County school board member has proposed several policy updates, including changes that would limit instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity until high school and prevent staff from providing counseling to a student regarding sexuality without a parental permission.

Board member Chris Wingate proposed changes to three policies including one regarding the teaching of controversial issues. His other proposals included a public information program and textbook approvals.

All of the changes were aimed at safeguarding parental rights, he said.

“Especially in areas of sexuality and gender, it’s the parent’s right and responsibility to discuss that with their child, not the schools’,” he said. “It is not okay for educators to offer private opinions to sway children in any direction.”

Wingate said his proposed policies are to prevent certain things from happening in the Madison County school division rather than addressing current issues.

“I think Madison has done fantastic job,” he said, “but I don’t think we can have our heads in the sand. Bad things are happening in school districts around our country and state.”

The board discussed but did not vote on the proposed changes at the meeting on Monday at Madison County High School.

Board members said changes to the three policies, including a ban on teaching about societal racism, are starting points and there would be more discussion. The school division is planning to survey parents and teachers about the changes.

“I do want people to know that we’re not in any hurry to do these,” board chairwoman Karen Allen said. “This is a beginning of a dialogue.”

During emotional rounds of public comment at Monday’s meeting, Madison County teachers, parents and community members spoke out against the changes, saying they would harm students and impede teachers’ abilities to do their jobs.

Most of the comments were about the policy on teaching controversial issues. Some speakers were supportive of Wingate’s efforts.

Susan Keaton, a Madison County resident, said she wanted politics out of schools and students to focus on learning math, art and science, among other subjects.

“If everyone can take a step back and stop with the politics and just think about what school really is. School is not a place to talk about or to think about who you want to sleep with,” Keaton said. “All these other things really just have no place in school.”

The board’s discussion came as states across the country move to limit what teachers can talk about with students. Those limits have a particular focus on conversations about race, sexuality and gender identity.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has honed in what he calls teaching inherently divisive concepts that “instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims,” according to the governor’s executive order No. 1.

Youngkin campaigned on a message of putting parents in control of their child’s education.

Wingate picked up that focus in his proposal, which included a blanket ban on using critical race theory to train teachers or administrators or instruct students.

Fifteen miles away, the Orange County School Board voted 3-2 to ban discussions about critical race theory, which was one of two resolutions up for discussion at that board’s meeting. A vote on the other one, which would’ve banned discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity as well as sexually explicit instructional materials without parental consent, was delayed.

The second resolution also would require schools to notify parents of healthcare services and involvement in critical decisions affecting students’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being; including, but not limited to, self-identification.

The resolution and those provisions have concerned LGBTQ advocates across the state.

In Madison County, the comments and discussion largely focused on language in the policy draft that would have prevented school employees from providing any individual instruction, counseling, or referrals to any outside agencies related to a student’s sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender choices without written parental approval.

Another change would require schools to allow parents to attend counseling with their child and provide them access to all records related to their children.

School counselors and teachers said those provisions could harm LGBTQ students because mental health services are limited in the area. If students can’t safely receive counseling at school, they have few other options, they said.

“Oftentimes, for many of the students, the only mental health services they receive are here within the school system,” said Terry Sisson, a school psychologist. “Eliminating mental health support for LGBTQ students can be traumatic, and we need to do everything possible to protect this vulnerable population and not push them aside.”

Sisson and others said he policy changes would conflict with the ethics and professional codes for school mental health employees.

“There’s room to improve this draft policy significantly by figuring out how to handle counseling and sensitive situations,” Wingate said later in the meeting.

In response to other concerns raised by the public, Wingate said he wanted to support teachers and pointed to a recent pledge by the board to boost the average salary in the division to the state average.

Wingate said he came up with the changes on his own; however, the language in the policy changes mirrors what Florida lawmakers adopted in March as part of what critics called the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

That law prohibited instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and was roundly criticized by national LGBTQ organizations and other groups.

On Monday night, some public speakers said Wingate’s changes would harm LGBTQ students.

“Your proposed changes to board policies, specifically those in the teaching about controversial issues policy, are dangerous and they are harmful to children,” said Laura Blackman, who is the education chair of the NAACP chapter for Madison County. “We demand that they be eliminated because our students deserve better, in particular black and brown LGBTQ youth.”

Blackman said the proposal would mean that students wouldn’t hear about different kinds of families or experiences.

“They don’t get to read books that center students who are gay or trans or discuss major milestones and civil rights activism,” Blackman said. “That means LGBTQ students and families will be further marginalized in your curriculum and in your schools, which is damaging and directly threatens your ability to support them.”

Several speakers pointed at data from the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization, and other groups that show LGBTQ youth at a higher risk for depression and to attempt suicide.

Kendall Fears, a kindergarten teacher in Madison County, said the policy revisions felt like a blanket staff email. She encouraged board members to take up their specific concerns with the teachers.

“There is a population of people that you are missing in this conversation and that is your teachers,” she said. “We are breaking under this pressure. I love this county. I love this town, and I don’t love teaching in Madison currently. That is very hard for me to say. We are struggling. We want to do what is best for every single student.”

Fears added that policy changes felt like board members were attempting to vilify teachers.

“I feel like we are pitting parents against teachers and we are a unified team,” she said. “We want what’s best for all children.”


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