CAUTION: This report contains material that may offend many readers.
Parents in the upstate New York town of Red Hook were outraged to learn the Linden Avenue Middle School required their eighth-grade students to participate in a workshop that told girls to ask each other for a kiss and provided instruction in such terms such as “pansexual,” “transsexual” and “genderqueer” identities.
Officials defended the workshop as carrying out the school’s obligation under the state “Dignity for All Students Act.” DASA claims to promote a school environment that is free of discrimination and harassment. But the law also requires all New York state schools to give classroom instruction in “sexual orientations, gender identities and sexes” as components of “tolerance,” “respect for others” and “dignity.”
Girls attending the Linden Avenue Middle School Health presentation were told to request a kiss from a female peer, according to school principal Katie Zahedi, in order to practice saying “no” to unwarranted advances. Nowhere in the Dignity for All Students Act, however, is it implied that schools were required to teach children about repelling sexual advances.
Zahedi and guidance counselors worked with a group of Bard College students to develop the workshop, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal. School administrators told the college activists planning the workshop “that absolutely no discussion of any sexual acts is appropriate to middle school.” The Red Hook School District, on its website, stressed that students were not “forced” to engage in actual kissing.
Equally troubling to parents was a leaflet distributed at the session which some students brought home to their parents. Deborah Leiner, a concerned parent, reported that the flyer, entitled “LGBTQ/Ally Terms and Definitions” listed and defined questionable terms such as “Gender Role, Gender Binary, TransGender, Transsexual, Cisgender, Pansexual… Androgyny, Genderqueer and Gender Neutral Pronouns.”
Even the Red Hook School Superintendent Paul Finch, who had taken pains to support the presentation, conceded that the flyer with the definitions incorporated too much detail, calling the list “overly granular in my opinion.” It was also a mistake, Principal Zahidi told the Rheinbeck/Red Hook Observer, that the flyer included the email addresses of the Bard students who conducted the workshop. She thought the student activists had good intentions, but the school didn’t want the dialogue to be ongoing.
Many parents questioned the appropriateness of the workshop’s content as well as the method of instruction. Mandy Coon, a mother of an eighth grader, told the Poughkeepsie Journal, “The whole thing just baffles me. If they are required to have this course, why are they bringing in other unlicensed, untrained professionals — college kids — to teach this?”
The puzzling role of the college students in planning and teaching the workshop may be explained by a unique partnership between state government and gay-rights activist groups. One of the nation’s largest gay rights advocacy groups, the Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN) is identified as a “Co-Chair” for “Local Policy and Implementation” of DASA, and the Empire Pride Agenda is “Co-Chair” of “Outreach.” According to a “Dignity Act Presentation” posted on the official New York State Education Department website, both groups are working in conjunction with the New York State Department of Education. The chief sponsors of DASA were openly-gay legislators, New York state Senator Thomas Duane and Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell.
In Queens, former state Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who is now running for a seat on the New York City Council, voted in favor of DASA when it passed in 2010.
Supporters of traditional family values sounded an alarm when the law was first pushed through the legislature in the closing weeks of the 2010 session. A report entitled “The New York Pagan School System” issued by the Community Guardians Group, closely examined DASA’s potential for abuse, with loose standards that may alienate and ostracize children who have religious moral beliefs. Significant holes in the legislation suggested that the law would be binding on all schools, public and private, in New York State.
A previous version of the DASA bill had explicitly stated that parochial schools would not be exempted from DASA’s requirements. New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch later announced that DASA would not apply to private schools.