Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott declines to stand up to principal’s curb on student’s right to advocate for marriage equality. | NEW YORK CITY
After a Queens principal barred a fifth grader from reading his essay supporting “same-gender” marriage at an assembly for the entire school –– saying it was too controversial and therefore inappropriate –– Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor Dennis Walcott, a mayoral appointee, backed up the principal’s plan to allow the essay to be read in a more limited forum.
City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who formerly was a fourth-grade teacher who was out to his students, said the principal, Beryl Bailey, “has taught a lesson in hate. There is nothing inappropriate about LGBT families or lives.”
The Jackson Heights Democrat called on Walcott to “act appropriately in this matter or he is making a mockery of the DOE’s Respect for All curriculum,” introduced in 2007 to combat bullying and harassment and affirm diversity among students.
Kameron Slade, the fifth grader at PS 195 in Rosedale, near Kennedy Airport, wrote his brief for marriage equality for an essay contest and it won in his class, paving the way for a school-wide victory. He wrote, “I hope that everyone understands how important it is to respect everyone for who they are. I believe that same-gender marriage should be accepted worldwide and that parents and teachers should start to discuss these issues without shame to their children.”
Bailey’s initial response was to ban Slade from reading at the assembly.
NY1 News gave Slade the opportunity to read his essay in its entirety, and Speaker Christine Quinn will have him read it at the next stated meeting of the City Council. He told WCBS that his work is “out there” and that young people who want to hear it “can sneak stuff, they can search it on the computer, they can watch it on the news.”
In Dromm’s view, though, the damage is done.
“Kids and teachers have gotten the message that this is a taboo subject,” he wrote in an email, “It raises troubling questions about how well LGBT issues are being integrated under Respect for All, no less whether LGBT issues are being integrated into curricula on a regular basis.”
Last year, Dromm proposed a Council resolution calling on the State Legislature to do what California has done and mandate integration of LGBT issues into curricula. Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, an out gay Upper West Side Democrat who steered marriage equality to victory in his chamber, has said that curricula decisions are made by the State Board of Regents and he is pushing it to do this. But Merryl Tisch, the Regents’ chair and a potential Republican mayoral candidate next year, declined to return a call from Gay City News for a 2011 story on Dromm’s resolution.
After the initial hubbub erupted over principal Bailey preventing Slade from reading his essay, she agreed to let him go forward, but only at a “special assembly” for fifth graders that would exclude the lower grades. The fifth graders’ parents, she said, would be alerted and have the opportunity to opt their children out of the assembly.
“If you have any concerns about having your child participate in this discussion at school, please feel free to contact me,” she told parents.
Slade’s mother said she was “really pleased” with the compromise, and Walcott endorsed the plan as well, saying, “This extra day will give her the ability to reach out to those parents to make them aware of the content of the speech because we’re talking about elementary school.”
Kameron Slade, however, was having none of it. At the essay contest assembly, he was forced to give a speech characterized as non-controversial about animal cruelty. He told WCBS, “I thought my original speech was really gonna win. I was very confident about it.” (In fact, he remains eligible for the contest.) He wrote it, he explained, because his mother has friends who are a lesbian couple. He even used the phrase “same-gender” instead of “same-sex” marriage so he could not be accused of injecting sex into the conversation.
United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew told Gay City he was concerned that the schools’ censorship of Slade would “ostracize” him for speaking up about something that is, after all, “the law of this state.”
State Senator Tom Duane, an out gay Chelsea Democrat, said, “Learning about civil marriage is giving knowledge to the next generation. To deny this to every child is wrong. Opt-out is absolutely misguided education policy. Many things I was taught I disagreed with and my parents did too, but I got to hear what was said. Dennis Walcott is perpetrating what we fought against for so long,” noting that the state Dignity for All Students anti-bullying bill, which he sponsored, goes into effect this summer.
Brooklyn’s Lambda Independent Democrats issued a statement charging that the actions of the principal and Walcott “demean LGBT families and LGBT relationships.” The statement said, “This careless and damaging set of decisions and public statements are a slap in the face of the city’s Respect for All initiatives that strive to promote diversity and inclusivity with the public school system.”
Lynn Faria, interim executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said in a written statement, “Kameron’s principal should not have given parents the option to pull their kids from their classmate’s presentation since to do so suggests that there is shame surrounding the subject of same-sex marriage.”
The New York Civil Liberties Union said that Slade’s rights were violated, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Comptroller John Liu have also weighed in on his side.
Dromm condemned the separate limited assembly as “discriminatory,” saying, “Separate but equal does not work.” On June 18, when the assembly was held, he was barred from attending by DOE officials. “Allowing parents to opt their children out of the assembly today is tantamount to allowing them to opt out of reality,” Dromm said.
Toward the end of his essay, Slade wrote, “My Mom is very open with me about same-gender marriage. However, some of those may be uncomfortable and think it is inappropriate to talk about this to children. I think adults must realize that as children get older, they become aware of these mature issues that are going on in the world. If children read or watch the news they can be aware of same-gender marriage. So what’s the point of trying to hide it?”
He concluded by writing, “Parents and teachers should discuss these issues without shame with their children.”
The challenge for equality advocates is whether they will allow Walcott’s compromise to become a precedent or see to it that this never happens again.