by Bonnie Pritchett
Christian pediatrician Whitney Morgan noticed the Facebook post referencing a Kiker Elementary School event: Monday, Feb. 6, 2017, 8-9 a.m.: “Coffee Talk with Dr. Schneider-Welcoming Schools.” Parents who wanted more information could find a brief description online: “Welcoming Schools is a comprehensive approach for educators to learn more about Embracing Family Diversity, Creating Inclusive Environments, Preventing Bias-based Bullying and Name Calling.”
All that sounded good, but Morgan, curious, searched online for Welcoming Schools and discovered its creator—the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRCF), the educational arm of the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, Human Rights Campaign. So when she heard about the meeting, she used the neighborhood’s 4,100-member Facebook page to urge her neighbors to attend.
Soon, an intense online debate began, and 40 parents (double the usual number) showed up at the Monday morning meeting. Principal Lori Schneider talked for almost an hour, leaving little time for parents’ questions. When one parent did ask why the school chose to use something produced by the ideologically driven HRCF, Schneider promised to review the materials and decide what would be best for Kiker students.
But teachers had already started training to use the Welcoming Schools material. The districtwide initiative began stealthily three years earlier, and when opposition emerged, Austin Independent School District (AISD) officials still were concerned about having a full debate on the curriculum. Angela Ward of AISD’s Department of Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness wrote to AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz on March 23, “As we studied the possibility of implementing Welcoming Schools in Austin ISD we realized that not all stakeholders are in a space where LGBTQ identity/identity development can be discussed openly.”
Welcoming Schools claims to address “family diversity, gender stereotyping and name-calling in K-5 learning environments.” HRCF promotes it as an “anti-bullying” curriculum, but it actually teaches elementary students to see homosexuality and heterosexuality as equally valid. To achieve the goal of placing the curriculum in schools nationwide, HRCF chose to define it with indefinite terms like “family diversity” and “inclusivity” that provide little insight into what the program actually teaches.
THREE YEARS AGO AISD sent Williams Elementary School counselor Lisa Schmitz and 20 other staffers to Houston for a three-day introductory training by HRCF facilitators. When the workshop concluded, Schmitz says, AISD prepared six training modules from the information gleaned from the meeting to use in its districtwide training.
In the first module, teachers previewed the instructional film That’s a Family! The trailer, available online, opens with music and visuals reminiscent of Sesame Street. Framed family portraits float onto the screen as young children introduce their families—traditional families, including interracial families, blended families, single-parent families, and a disproportionate number of gay parents.
One small boy introduces his two moms and two dads. A young girl says: “My two dads are gay. … And gay means when two men or two women love each other. It’s sort of like having a mom and a dad who love each other except that it’s a man and a man. Or a woman and a woman.”
At the end of the trailer, a little boy says: “There’s so many different ways to be a family. It doesn’t matter who’s in the family, but it matters that you love each other and take care of each other. That’s a family!”
Welcoming Schools encourages teachers to use their “unique and influential role” to create conditions where children feel safe in “authentically expressing and identifying their gender.” HRCF trains teachers to use “inclusive and gender neutral” language and employ preferred names and pronouns of gender dysphoric children.
Schmitz says her school’s “inclusive” policies have eliminated gender-specific language and activities (no more “Muffins for Mom” and “Donuts for Dad”—it’s now just “Muffin Mornings” and “Donut Day”) and created “gender-neutral individual stall restrooms for students.”
Neither HRCF’s Welcoming Schools director Johanna Eager nor Austin officials would respond to questions about the curriculum’s promotion of gender fluidity and how that works out in the classroom. Nor did they answer questions about whether the curriculum requires teachers to teach and affirm gender fluidity. Austin school officials said only that the district is “committed to including all students in making them feel safe and valued at school.”
But the Welcoming Schools teacher training modules boast a wealth of transgender-affirming children’s book recommendations, including I Am Jazz, the true story of one gender dysphoric child’s transformation from biological boy to “girl.”
KIKER ELEMENTARY is not the first community to be divided over Welcoming Schools. Hale Elementary School in Minneapolis piloted the curriculum in 2008 when HRCF asked three school districts to volunteer.
Steve and Jill Rose soon became part of a small band of parents who sounded the alarm after learning about the curriculum’s content.
Jill Rose actively volunteered at her then-fourth-grader’s “easygoing” school. Each afternoon parents walked their dogs to campus to pick up their children. When the school’s racial dynamics changed with an influx of Muslim immigrants, parents left their pets at home as a courtesy to their new neighbors.
But Welcoming Schools does not teach consideration for those who are different. It demands confirmation.
As more Hale families became aware of Welcoming Schools’ agenda, “it became very divisive,” Jill Rose recalled. Local and national television news outlets picked up the story, expanding the controversy from the school into the wider metroplex.
The alarmed parents—several Christian and one Muslim mother—convinced the Minneapolis school board to order a review of the curriculum, which resulted in only a few minor modifications. The board retained the bulk of the curriculum.
The Roses weren’t surprised that HRCF chose Minneapolis as a Welcoming Schools test site, but they were caught off guard that the group was able to circumvent the standard curriculum approval process, and they were dismayed by the level of vitriol that lingers almost a decade later: The Roses’ house has been egged, they get sideways glances when they’re out in the community, and they find the occasional piece of hate mail addressed to “Bigot Central” waiting in their mailbox.
AUSTIN, home to the main campus of the University of Texas, is a liberal city, but it does include Christians and conservatives who question authority, so I tried to find out how Welcoming Schools had proceeded under the radar. AISD says the 85 individual elementary schools must request the material, but HRCF Welcoming Schools coordinator Charles Girard last October sent a congratulatory email to Darla Caughey in AISD’s Social and Emotional Learning department: “We know that you’ve been doing wonderful work out in Austin as an ambassador for our program.”
When asked about the district’s Welcoming Schools endorsement and the curriculum’s promotion of gender fluidity, Superintendent Paul Cruz referred me to AISD Communications Specialist Tiffany Young, but she left unanswered questions about AISD’s alliance with an organization that promotes for gender dysphoric children medical suspension of puberty beginning as early as 11 or 12, lifelong cross-sex hormone therapy, and gender reassignment surgery. Young said the district does not have a policy regarding such therapy.
I contacted principals from 21 of the district’s 27 Welcoming Schools–trained campuses, asking about the program. Only three responded. Baranoff Elementary Principal Megan Counihan said she has not implemented Welcoming Schools despite receiving training: Her teachers had “a lot on their plates” last year with AISD’s implementation of five major initiatives. She said the school would eventually take up the program, “but last year wasn’t the time to begin another new initiative.” Sunset Valley Elementary Principal Emily Bush directed questions to AISD headquarters, which continued to be unresponsive.
Williams Elementary Principal Mary Cisneros asked Schmitz, her school’s counselor, to respond. Schmitz said Welcoming Schools material is not taught to the children but to the teachers with the goal of “challenging beliefs, finding common ground.” But critics contend that by adopting HRC’s human sexuality ideology, including its gender-obliterating vocabulary, teachers convey a worldview disconnected from reality and God’s created order. Simply defining “lesbian” or “gay” as two women or two men “who love each other” introduces young children to the idea that they, too, could be lesbian or gay because of their affection for friends of the same sex.
By pitching its lessons as an anti-bullying curriculum, HRCF takes advantage of a quirk in many state sex-ed laws. “Some states require guardian consent when school curricula address sexuality,” an HRCF resource page states. “However, when educators discuss family diversity, they are not talking about sexuality—they are talking about understanding the importance of family, love, and acceptance for everyone.”
Therefore parents can’t opt out, even though many who want to fight bullying don’t want to be bullied themselves.
Besides, HRCF designed Welcoming Schools to permeate classroom instruction with handouts, videos, and children’s books on homosexuality and gender fluidity. It’d be hard to pinpoint a specific time a student could leave the classroom to escape its influence.
Kiker Elementary Principal Schneider did not respond to repeated requests for information about her decision concerning Welcoming Schools on her campus.
Dr. Morgan says the idea that children can change their sex is the most troubling element of the Welcoming Schools dogma. She’s seen the effects of that thinking in her medical practice as parents in the past two years have begun asking about their children’s gender identity. Morgan insists gender nonconforming behavior is a typical part of childhood development and should not be “treated” as an expression of transgenderism.
Morgan believes HRCF’s blatant transgender advocacy will convince otherwise normal children to make decisions that might eventually lead to irreversible medical intervention: “There are a whole group of children who may have gone on to a well-adjusted adulthood in their same-sex body who might now, because of social pressures that are subtle, all around them, end up in a body that is transgender and have no way back.”
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