ALAMEDA, Calif. -- A San Francisco Bay area school board will use broad lessons against bias to replace a curriculum against bullying gay people that had become a national centerpiece in the opposition to same-sex marriage.
The vote by the Alameda Board of Education on Tuesday did little to ease tensions in the island city near Oakland. A lawsuit and threats of recalling school board members accompanied debate over the so-called Lesson 9 curriculum adopted in May to prevent anti-gay bullying.
Gay parents in the community wanted their children protected from bullying, while other parents argued that elementary school is too early to talk to students about gay people.
The new anti-bullying lessons approved by the board, at the recommendation of School Superintendent Kirsten Vital, will be supplemented by children's books that explicitly address six specific forms of bias, including against gays.
"This has torn apart our community," said school trustee Trish Herrera Spencer, the board member most opposed to the gay curriculum and who opposed adding the supplemental books. She said the board's latest action did not take into consideration "the strong beliefs" of all in the community.
The 45-minute Lesson 9, which was to be taught once a year in each grade starting with kindergarten, sparked a lawsuit, accusations that religious families were being discriminated against and threats of a recall election against the three board members who approved it.
Vital said her recommendation was meant to counter complaints from parents opposed to the original lesson because it highlighted only one type of bullying.
"There is not an off-the-shelf, perfect curriculum that is going to work for our community," Vital said, explaining that she wants to solicit book recommendations, bring them back to the school board for approval in a few months and then work with teachers to develop accompanying lesson plans in time for the 2010-11 academic year.
Several parents said they did not trust a teachers' committee to pick books that would both satisfy gay and lesbian parents and parents with religious views that do not condone homosexuality.
"Freedom of religion is protected from harassment and discrimination from anyone. It may be of no consequence to some, but it is a very integral part of many traditional families and should be honored," said Kellie Wood, who has three children in Alameda schools and is part of a group circulating recall election petitions. "If we're all honest, the friction between two protected classes, in particular, will not go away."
Kathy Passmore, a lesbian mother of two, said she hears students using anti-gay language in her job as a sixth grade teacher in Alameda. She urged the school board to retain the spirit of Lesson 9.
"The children of gay families exist and are attending ASUD schools every single day," she said. "They are here."
Alameda, an island city that foots Oakland and is home to a Coast Guard installation and a former Naval base that is being eyed for housing, is the latest community to be divided by its school district's desire to curb anti-gay bullying and the concerns of parents who do not want their children to hear about gay and lesbian issues in school.
During last year's campaign to pass a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages in California, the measure's sponsors ran commercials featuring a Massachusetts couple who unsuccessfully sued their local district for the right to pull their child out of anti-bullying lessons that included references to gay households.
A year later, the same public relations firm that developed that ad developed a new one for the campaign to outlaw gay marriage in Maine focusing on a second-grade picture book that was part of Alameda's Lesson 9. The book, "Who's In A Family," contains pictures of families headed by grandparents, single parents and gay parents, among others.
A dozen Alameda families sued the school district earlier this year over its contention that parents did not have to be notified in advance when teachers planned to give the lessons so they could keep their children from receiving them. Last week, an Alameda Superior Court judge sided with the school district, ruling that a state law allowing parents to have their "opt-out" of discussions about human sexuality did not apply to Lesson 9.
Kevin Snider, a lawyer with the conservative Pacific Justice Institute who represented the Alameda families, said before the school board's vote that his clients would not appeal the judge's ruling if the school board eliminated Lesson 9. He did not immediately return a call Wednesday for clarification on whether the board's action satisfied that condition.