From Omaha, Texas
Last winter is when Jacob Schilling, then 8, began telling his mom he didn't want to go to music class at Pewett Elementary School in tiny Omaha, Texas. According to Shannon, his mother, he couldn't quite verbalize why. "He just kept saying he didn't like it, that Mr. Stewart was weird. That's the kids' word: weird," she says.
But by the end of May, the energetic music teacher began to fill in the blanks: While teaching a 6th-grade music class, James C. Stewart told students he's a homosexual.
"I think by then, most everyone around suspected," said Miss Schilling, a 28-year-old single mom. "It's a small town, and there's not much hiding anything."
School officials either would not talk about the controversy or referred to it only in generalities--in an attempt to dismiss the parents' concerns. The specific charges come from children, parents, and the Rutherford Institute, a legal organization representing the parents' interests. The story goes like this:
It's less than a mile from one end of town to the other; Miss Schilling, who grew up here and now owns the city's sole pizza parlor, boasts about how she still leaves her truck unlocked with no fear of theft or vandalism. From these things at least, she implies, this small town is still sheltered. But not from the politics of enforced tolerance.
There was no transferring Jacob out of Mr. Stewart's class, she was told by his principal, because his was the only fine arts class the school offered, and the state mandates a fine arts class for elementary students.
"The principal told me if I wasn't going to send Jacob to Mr. Stewart's class, I shouldn't bother to bring him to school," she recounts.
The summer break started almost immediately after Mr. Stewart made his announcement; Miss Schilling and other parents thought about how they would respond. When school resumed in August, they went to the school board, hoping simply to get permission to place their children in alternative fine-arts classes.
Instead, they found a political movement trying to bar the door to them. And more wrenching, teachers, including ones her son had in years past, turned out to "support" Mr. Stewart and stand against the 17 parents who assembled to address the school board.
In September, the Texas State Teachers Association sent Miss Schilling a letter threatening to sue. "It has been alleged you have been making false and misleading statements about Mr. Stewart and his professional reputation," wrote the teachers' union lawyer. "I am demanding . . . that you issue a written retraction of all that you have said and/or written concerning Mr. Stewart."
Miss Schilling says she was dumbfounded. "Retract what? What false and misleading things did I ever say, except what he told students himself?"
And in recent weeks, according to Miss Schilling and other parents, Mr. Stewart has continued a bizarre campaign of intimidation, singling out the children of parents who went to the board, and harassing the parents themselves. Nickie Tohill's daughter was called out of class by Mr. Stewart and brought to tears when he began to disparage her mother to her. Mrs. Tohill said Mr. Stewart has yelled at her and made obscene gestures.
Mr. Stewart did not respond to two attempts to reach him. Students say he has told them that even though he's leaving the school system in December, he's going to continue the lawsuits.
Schools are the newest focal point in homosexuals' fight to legitimize their lifestyle. Education Week admits: "Public schools are [becoming] a battleground for gay-rights issues." Announces gay activist Donna Redwing, "We're here, we're queer, we're in the classroom."
At the fore is a group calling itself the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers Network (GLSTN). Holding national conferences and winning the ear of President Clinton, the group is quietly effective in broaching the subject of homosexuality in the classroom.
Here are some examples:
**red_square** In the St. Louis suburb of Mehlville, history teacher Rodney Wilson, 29, "came out" to his class, after showing a film about the Holocaust. When the film was over, Mr. Wilson held up a poster showing the emblems the Nazis used to identify Jews, homosexuals, and Gypsies. He declared, "If I had been in Europe during World War II, they would have put this pink triangle on me and gassed me to death, because I am gay."
As he recounts it, the class responded with applause for his bravery. The school's administration responded with a memo saying it was "inappropriate for a teacher to discuss facts of a personal nature, regardless of the nature of those beliefs, in the classroom."
Mr. Wilson is suing the school district to have the memo removed from his permanent record.
**red_square** In San Diego, a high-school teacher named Jose Arroyo took advantage of 1995's "National Coming Out Day" by announcing in his classes his homosexuality. The school administrators knew about it and admitted they were "troubled" by it, but they didn't stop him. Mr. Arroyo soothed their fears by promising only to talk about homosexuality in general, not his personal sex life.
**red_square** In Dedham, Mass., student activity money was used to fund a "Gay-Straight Student Alliance" and to distribute a questionnaire that was lightly veiled propagandizing.
**red_square** And in St. Paul, Minn., lesbian social worker Mary Tinucci brought a program called "Out With Equity" to all six of the school system's high schools. This program includes support groups for kids who are questioning their sexuality ("peeking into the closet" is the gay term); confidential health services (condoms and information about homosexual sex); and even "safe zones" in each building--classrooms in which the teachers have been trained to answer questions about sexual orientation.
"We want to provide support groups for young people who have questions about sexual orientation or who have identified themselves as gay or lesbian," Ms. Tinucci says. "The goal is to expose them to adults who can offer them healthy coping strategies."
GLSTN has almost single-handedly set the terms of the debate. Founded in Boston just six years ago, the group led the drive to "ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation" in Massachusetts public schools. Republican Gov. William Weld (who last week lost a bid for the U.S. Senate) remained enchanted with the group, honoring it with proclamations and state contracts. In 1994, GLSTN was chosen to develop the faculty training materials for the state's "Safe Schools for Gay and Lesbian Youth." Its next goal is to see schools celebrate Gay and Lesbian History Month.
GLSTN is seeing slow but steady progress. Five states and numerous school districts have changed their education codes to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But more common are the districts that simply don't want to deal with the issue. That's what happened in Omaha, Texas. School board members listened (in a private, confidential session) to the concerns of parents, but said there was nothing they could do. "We were told their hands were tied," says Mrs. Tohill. "They didn't want to get sued."
School board president Clay Harrison said, "Even if it is true, there's nothing we could do about it. We were very concerned and attentive, but if we'd have acted, [Mr. Stewart] would have owned the school." The Omaha superintendent did not return calls.
Perhaps here, finally, is a legitimate use of the word "homophobia." School districts see a minefield of potential litigation. The National Education Association has a longstanding policy of providing free legal counsel to teachers who feel they've been discriminated against because of their homosexuality. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is representing (for free) a number of teachers who make such claims. One homosexual teacher, who feels the school didn't do enough for him when students taunted him because of his homosexuality, is suing for discrimination and also filing a worker's compensation claim. And in three separate cases, homosexual youths are suing because they were bullied.
In Omaha, school officials appear to be choosing ignorance. The party line is that school officials do not know that Mr. Stewart is a homosexual--but they refuse to talk to students who were present when he "came out."
Rutherford Institute attorneys are now working with the lawsuit-threatened parents, and they say they're not surprised. "This is the way school boards work," said Rutherford regional director Kelly Shackelford. "Whether they knew about the situation before or not, they know now because the parents told them. But I think the strategy is to know nothing, and hope it just goes away."
At first glance, the problem has gone away. Mr. Stewart will be leaving in December (he's told students he's going to Mexico). Both Mrs. Tohill's children and Jacob Schilling are now attending school in a nearby district. There's now only the lingering threat of a lawsuit against the parents.
Pewett Elementary School itself shows no outward signs of unrest. Principal Robert Hinds emerges, pauses to greet an overall-clad mail carrier, then returns to his 15 x 15 office.
"I don't think there's anything to this," says Mr. Hinds. "It's tragic to me. This teacher is leaving, the best music teacher we've ever had. And he's losing some retirement benefits by leaving early. None of this is his fault."
But didn't he tell a class of children that he's a homosexual? "I don't know anything about that," Mr. Hinds says defiantly. "I think this is something where the teacher has moved past it, the children have moved past it, it's just the parents. They can't let go of it."
No, they can't."It's not the duty of the parents to just get over it," said Rutherford's Mr. Schackelford. "It's the duty of the school district to ensure its teachers aren't harassing students and parents and coming out in class."