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UPDATED April 25: Controversy continues about sex education at elementary campuses within Arlington Public Schools. 

There was to have been a public hearing about it at Thursday evening’s meeting of the Arlington School Committee. However, the formal parental complaint about the new curriculum that was the basis for the hearing was withdrawn and the hearing canceled before dawn Wednesday.

Nevertheless, three local residents spoke about the new “human growth and development’ curriculum during the public-comment portion at the beginning of the April 13 regular meeting of the committee. By longstanding practice, no one on the committee specifically responded. 

However, that body later, in a split vote, bought itself time to clarify how to handle possible future parental challenges about this matter or any other educational issue.

The committee voted, 5-2, to suspend its “Policy IJ-R” until May 25 and to meanwhile have it considered and revised by the committee’s Policies and Procedures Subcommittee. This temporarily removes the ability of members of the public to file formal complaint about instruction. 

Newest member votes with majority

School Committee logo
'What we have now is broken.'
-- Paul Schlichtman, referring to Policy IJ-R

In her first meeting, new committee member Laura Gitelson, who succeeded Bill Hayner in the April 1 election, voted in favor of the policy suspension, as did Jane Morgan, Paul Schlichtman, Liz Exton and newly elected Committee Chair Kirsi Allison-Ampe. Dissenting were Len Kardon and Jeff Thielman.

In discussion before the vote, most members said that the current policy is unclear as to whether the full committee is required to hold a public hearing about a parental complaint, and, if so, how soon it must occur.

“What we have now is broken,” said Schlichtman, who earlier in the evening was chosen as vice chair of the committee -- and who is the longtime head of the subcommittee.

Responding to a YourArlington request, Schlichtman replied via email late Thursday, "Essentially, IJ-R says, 'When a problem concerning instructional resources in a school arises, the disposition of the problem will be made in a reasonable period of time using district-adopted procedures.'  [However], when we go back to the 'parent policy,' IJ, it points us to the [now] nonexistent KEC [policy]"

“The way that it’s written now is so vague,” Morgan said at the meeting.

Allison-Ampe said the policy suspension “gives us a pause.” 

She said the committee and the district “want to be able to react in a more thoughtful manner” and that over the next few weeks would likely be able to “come up with a better procedure.”

Dissenters explain their votes

At the meeting, before the vote was taken, Kardon said he would vote against the motion. He referred to the formerly used KEC policy, saying that it provided that the committee only had to review a formal complaint and was not required to schedule a hearing and that the committee therefore need not suspend extant policy IJ-R.

Contacted via email over the holiday weekend, Thielman told YourArlington the following, also via email: 

"I agree with my colleagues that the policy needs to be modified to better respond to curriculum challenges. My feeling was that we could do that in a timely fashion without suspending the process we currently have in place. My hope is that we can rewrite the policy to allow all sides concerned about a curriculum matter to be heard in a thoughtful and respectful way."

Speaker criticizes commission, committee

Early in the meeting, three town residents spoke during public comment, each being allotted the standard three minutes in which to do so.

Brian Corcoran called the new curriculum a “substantive change” from the past. For example, he said, it appears to include an approach exemplified by "the gender unicorn."

Moreover, he said,  “APS' own policy requires School Committee approval in this case [of substantive curriculum change] -- and that clearly did not happen. Substantive changes also trigger notification requirements to parents. It could be argued that those notification requirements were met by the letter of the policy [given that an email was sent by APS to some parents in January] -- but you couldn't argue that the spirit of that policy has been achieved since January.”

Corcoran appeared also to denigrate the proposed hearing testimony of the Arlington LGBTQIA+ Rainbow Commission, which claimed that providing speaking time to curriculum opponents could have endangered the well-being of transgender and gender-diverse children.

“If others do not see [genderqueer individuals] in precisely the way” in which they perceive themselves, “then harm has been done” to them, according to the commission’s view, Corcoran said. “And I will continue to believe that this obsession with [children's self-perceived] identity is strongly correlated with the [currently poor] state of youth mental health.”

He criticized the quasi-governmental commission’s “approach to advocacy” as “emotionally dysregulated” -- and also called out the committee, for its alleged “failure of leadership” due to what he considers its lack of adherence to policy in a meaningful manner. 

Phrases using anatomical terms

Michelle Orfanos said the committee should be willing to hear all sides of all issues and not attempt to silence debate.

She asked whether anyone on the committee had reached out directly to the person who filed the formal complaint weeks ago.

She said the district seems to be discarding a widely used, venerable health program called “The Great Body Shop” in favor of a radically different one in which, she said, “the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are not to be spoken” but instead are to be replaced by “person with a penis,” “person with a vulva” and similar phrases.

“How is this appropriate for fourth graders?” she asked.

She said Arlington was one of only 10 towns in the commonwealth to adopt the new curriculum.

Opponent calls approach 'antiscience'

Mark Kaepplein described the new approach to sex education as “taking an antiscience stand,” because he said that in almost all instances there are only two genders and only two sexes. 

He said that the recent multiplicity of gender identities has “grown into a huge Internet fad” and then compared it to the popularity of long hair in the '60s and '70s, and the Goth movement of the '80s and '90s.

However, in the earlier decades, he said, teens rebelling to be recognized as different could simply cut their hair when they eventually saw reason. As to the latter trend, he said, “When you run out of mascara, it’s time to hang up your Doc Martens,” referring to a boot brand favored by adherents of Goth fashions.

After the three-minute mark had been reached, he attempted to exceed his speaking time and was scolded by Allison-Ampe for that and for, in her view, veering off topic.

District perspective

As part of the “superintendent's update” delivered toward the end of every committee meeting, Dr. Elizabeth Homan said that even with the new, temporary absence of a mechanism for official complaint, people still may continue to express their views informally.

She also noted, “Parents are able to pull their students out [of sex-education lessons] if they so choose -- and they [should] reach out to the principal [of their child's campus] to do that.” 

According to the eighth slide of a slide-show presentation that took place in February, the new curriculum seeks to attain the following four goals: “normalize the conversations about gender identity; provide students with proper definitions/explanations in regards to gender identity vs. sex assigned at birth; create an inclusive environment to all members of our community; and represent all students in the curriculum materials.”

YourArlington has repeatedly asked district officials to explain the new curriculum, including the implementation timeline, at what point in the school year it is customarily taught, who provides the instruction, how many people attended the February slide-show about it and what terminology it uses. No responses have yet been received.

 Estimated 80 express support at First Parish

Rainbow Commissioner Kym Goldsmith (in glasses). / Rainbow Commission photoRainbow Commissioner Kym Goldsmith (in sunglasses) joins support. / Rainbow Commission photo

Some 80 people stood in front of First Parish Unitarian Universalist the evening of Thursday, April 13, at the same time and date that the Arlington School Committee was meeting just a few blocks away. They were expressing gratitude and support for the curriculum proposed for use at the town's public elementary schools.

“This gathering is about affirming inclusivity and belonging in our community,” Rainbow Commission Cochair Helene Newberg said. The commission “was overwhelmed by the outpouring of community support in the wake of an all-too-familiar and now too-close-to-home challenge to curriculum that is inclusive of all kids.”

Three hundred people had promised to attend a public hearing previously scheduled for April 13 at the School Committee -- ultimately called off only 36 hours in advance after a parent withdrew her formal complaint -- and more than 50 of them had pledged to offer testimony in support of the gender-inclusive curriculum, she said.

The Rev. Erica Richmond said outside her church: “First, we begin with gratitude. In a time when so many of us wrestle with packed schedules and multiple priorities, we are thankful for your volunteerism and leadership in our town and on behalf of our children.

“And, secondly, we are grateful for your commitment to LGBTQ+ children and families. Arlington has much to be proud of. We urge you to continue this commitment to ensure that the Grade 4/5 curriculum maintains its trans and gender-diverse materials.

“As people of faith, we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of all people. To feel at home in one's body, to feel celebrated in one's identity, should not be the privilege of a few. In a time when fear and hatred of trans and nonbinary people is on the rise, it is important that our children know what it is to be affirmed just as they are. We know that access to healthcare and educational material makes a difference in someone's ability to thrive. As people of faith, we will not waiver from fighting for more love, more justice, more inclusion in this world. We urge you to join us.”

Twelve members of the brass band BABAM, which stands for Boston Area Brigade of Activist Musicians, played for the first 20 minutes, then again for 15 minutes after the speeches ended. 

Among those attending were clergy; elected officials; Police Chief Juliann Flaherty, who was not in uniform; and other town leaders, including Tim Ross, ADA coordinator; Christine Bongiorno, head of human services; Christine Carney, cochair of the Human Rights Commission; and Jillian Harvey, head of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Some drivers passing through Arlington Center offered honks of support.

A WBUR reporter was observed interviewing both speakers.   

Watch the April 13 meeting on ACMi:

April 5, 2023: Hayner honored for 12 years on School Committee

The main news summary by YourArlington Assistant Editor Judith Pfeffer was published Friday, April 14, 2023. It was updated April 15, to add an ACMi video window; to include a second news summary about a pro-curriculum rally based on notes from Adam MacNeill and information from Susan Ryan-Vollmar, both YourArlington advisory board members; and additional quotes delivered at the School Committee meeting by local resident Brian Corcoran during the public-comment portion of the agenda. It was updated April 18, 2023, to include explanations from the two dissenting committee members (Len Kardon and Jeff Thielman), and April 25, 2023, to include corrections in textual material related to Corcoran's comments and to note that district officials have not yet responded to inquiries.

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