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This Country Celebrates Diversity, Not the Lowest Common Denominator

Twenty years ago, I watched a group of parents tear down Anaheim’s model sex education program. Most were noisy and rude and obstreperous, and the most common charge leveled against the program was that it was a communist plot.

Last Tuesday at a school board meeting in Costa Mesa, I watched a group of parents with essentially the same mission. But how the game has changed in 2 decades! This group was polite, rational, almost soft-spoken. Neither God nor communism was mentioned once.

The scene was the monthly school board meeting of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. The topic was Mike Marino’s psychology class at Corona del Mar High School--although no one was allowed to say so.

In a ruling that got more and more peculiar as the meeting progressed, Board President Roderick MacMillian told speakers that they were not to refer to the school or the class or the teacher by name (like the Iran-Contra hearings, where Lebanon was Country A and Israel Country B). Mercifully several of the later speakers Tuesday simply ignored this restriction. It was refreshing.

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Marino, you’ll recall if you’ve been following this story, has been under fire from a group of parents in the Newport-Mesa district because he invited homosexuals into his classroom--a practice he’s followed for 19 years--to answer questions from students related to the course curriculum.

The disaffected parents were strongly supported in their protests by James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, whose taped interviews with serial killer Theodore Bundy have been a hot item on Christian fundamentalist radio stations all over the world. In mid-January, Newport-Mesa Supt. John Nicoll--saying the pressure from Dobson did not influence him--ordered Marino to stop bringing gay speakers into his classroom. At the school board meeting last Tuesday, parents on both sides of the issue were offered a forum.

It was a quite remarkable exercise in democracy. None of the speakers raised their voices; none was excessive; all were effusive in praising the board for providing this opportunity to speak. Since the speakers were invited to the podium alphabetically and were about evenly divided on the issue, the pendulum of opinion swung back and forth. Only by watching where the applause came from could the two sides be sorted out. Politeness didn’t extend to applauding speakers from the other side.

Newport citizen Ray Woolsey--who has served as a kind of point guard for the protesters--led off and ended his presentation by requesting that the board form a parent-teacher curriculum committee for any sex-related instruction material, that any sex education instruction in the district be board-approved and consistent, that the curriculum be reviewed every 3 years and that permission must be granted in writing by parents for students to attend these classes.

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About three dozen speakers followed, all with well-thought-out remarks. Dick Allen said that it is unlikely such a meeting would change either a decision or very many minds, “so I’m here to take a stand, to make sure our silence isn’t misinterpreted. I want to make it clear I’m against unconscionable intolerance of others.”

Diane Cannon, a past PTA president, said she had sons coming up who want to take Marino’s class, “and why should we allow a few who object to make it impossible for my sons to share this learning experience?”

David Dykstra, president of the Corona del Mar chapter of the Republican Assembly, read a letter sent to the board that thanked Nicoll for his action, called Marin’s curriculum a violation of Christian-Judeo ethics, and asserted “there is no proof that homosexuals are born that way.”

A few minutes later, Alex Wentzell, president of the Log Cabin Club of Orange County (a Republican organization of gay and civil rights activists), said: “Not all Republicans share Mr. Dykstra’s views. Being gay is not a matter of choice. If it were, why would any young person want to be gay?”

Denise Penn made the same point, saying she has an 18-year-old lesbian daughter, “and I can assure you, it isn’t by her choice. I’d never support and encourage a child to go through this if it wasn’t part of their inherent nature.”

There were a few moderately low blows struck--always politely. One parent read from a case study he said was offered in Marin’s course. It was unpleasant, even repugnant, and made an obvious impact. It was also taken totally out of the course context. And a later speaker--a teacher at Corona del Mar High School--pointed out that the case history had been used once, several years ago, in supplemental study material, and had been quickly removed by the instructor and not used since.

One of the most effective comments was made by Corona del Mar High student Garret Savage who said: “I’m a responsible young adult, and I’m not going to be vague about the school I attend or the class I’m talking about.” He expressed support for Marino, then looking steadily at the board, said: “You are directly responsible to us--the students--not just to the parents. It’s the students who are going to be affected, not the parents.” Later in the program, another Corona del Mar student presented a petition backing Marino and signed by 730 students.

Several observations leaped out. The overflow audience was remarkably young. There was not a single black, Latino or Oriental speaker nor--as far as I could see--member of the audience.

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But the point that hit me hardest was the gap between the thinking of these two groups of people. I see no way of compromising these points of view. A sex education program that would be regarded as acceptable by the protesting group would be seen as Pablum--and worse than useless--by the other group. One of the later speakers--a teacher from Estancia High School--summed this up when she said: “I understand how a curriculum can conflict with private belief systems. But in this country we celebrate diversity. I don’t think we want to reduce our school curriculums to the lowest common denominator that wouldn’t conflict with anyone’s belief system.”

I don’t either. I think in this very touchy area, parents should be allowed to remove their students--either from taking a class or from specific course content they find offensive. But I don’t think they should be able to prevent other students and other parents from exposure to teaching the latter regard as useful and desirable.


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