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The new homophobia: Schools fear lawsuits

National | School districts in turmoil over gay teachers' "coming out"

Issue: "The '96 Election," Nov. 16, 1996

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.

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"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."

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