Some times Olympia residents of particularly liberal persuasion forget that, despite Olympia's reputation for Greener values and its active and vocal GLBT community, there are still quite a few folks who bristle at the words "gay" and "lesbian." Even a message of tolerance gets translated into a call for acceptance, or, for a select few,
Anti-bullying assemblies that addressed gay and lesbian issues Wednesday at Washington Middle School have angered some parents.
The parents say they should have received better notification that an assembly about a controversial topic was coming up. And some say that if they had known about the assembly, they would have had their child excused from attending.
“They’re undermining parents, and they’re deciding what morals to teach our children,” said Stewart Wood, whose daughter is a Washington eighth-grader. “The school was making a decision to give certain information to sway students a certain way without consulting the parents.”
Olympia School District Superintendent Bill Lahmann said school officials probably could have done more to notify parents beyond announcing the event in a recent newsletter and should do so in the future. However, Olympia schools aren’t going to shy away from teaching students about harassment and bullying issues, he said.
“All kids deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully,” Lahmann said.
“It doesn’t matter what a student’s beliefs are or anything else; harassment is not tolerated.”
Stonewall Youth, an Olympia group that supports and advocates for gay and lesbian young people, provided six 15- to 21-year-old panelists who spoke at the assembly, said Kristyn Leach, the group’s speakers bureau coordinator. The speakers shared personal stories and talked about the discrimination that gay and lesbian people face, she said.
“It was basically making sure our schools feel safe for every kid that goes there,” Leach said. “We’re talking about basic human kindness to each other.”
Speakers from Stonewall Youth have given presentations throughout the region, including at Avanti and South Sound high schools, she said. Wednesday’s assembly was the group’s first at a middle school, Leach said.
“It was about really instilling in young people that they have a lot of control and a lot of power about how people’s lives are impacted” by prejudice, she said. “It was very age-appropriate.”
Wood and his wife, Bev, say their chief concern was that they hadn’t heard about the assembly before their daughter sent a text message to her mother about it. Bev Wood said a recent Washington Middle School newsletter mentioned the assembly but didn’t specify a date. After receiving her daughter’s text message, Bev Wood drove to the school to pick her up.
“They weren’t openly told that they didn’t have to attend this,” Bev Wood said of Washington students. “A lot of them weren’t happy with being in there or were uncomfortable being in there.”
Some Washington parents say they think the school should have sent a letter home to parents or sent an audio message to all parents through Washington’s automated phone-messaging system.
“I was livid,” said Patti Connolly, the parent of an eighth-grader, describing her feelings when her daughter told her about the assembly. “It’s not appropriate. That stuff is taught at home, not in schools.”
Connolly said that if she had received notice, she would have talked to her daughter about the topic and asked if she felt comfortable attending. She said that if her daughter had wanted to go, she would have taken time off work to attend as well so she could answer any of her daughter’s questions.
Karen Overmiller, who has an eighth-grade daughter and a sixth-grade son at Washington, said she was shocked when her daughter told her about the assembly. She said she also would have given her children a choice about attending the assembly if they’d known about it. And if the two students had wanted to go, Overmiller or her husband would have attended as well to answer their questions, she said.
“We didn’t have an opportunity to be there for our children because the school didn’t notify us about it,” Overmiller said.
Leach said the assembly wasn’t intended to replace family discussions about gay and lesbian issues but to add to the conversation.
“Parents do need to talk about these things to their kids,” Leach said. “It’s terrifying to me that even one child would be pulled out of this classroom. I hope that they do go home and talk about it.”
Although speakers asked that personal stories shared during the assembly remain confidential, Leach said that message wasn’t intended to prevent students from talking about the assembly with their families.
“We just wanted to make sure kids out in the classrooms weren’t teasing each other about things they’d heard,” she said.
Some parents said they worried that the confidentiality message might have been confusing to students.
“This is a public school,” Stewart Wood said. “Nothing is confidential that happens in the classroom.”