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Controversy surrounds social topics in schools

Discussions of race, gender and sexuality in one Iowa public school district are raising questions about what content schools should be responsible for teaching their students.

In February, as a part of Black History Month, Ames Community School District engaged in “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.”

The district described the program as time set aside to affirm all Black identities by centering Black voices and to teach about Black experiences beyond slavery.

The lessons also included education affirming LGBTQ identities. The programming was not officially affiliated with any Black Lives Matter organization and parents were able to opt their children out of the education.

Ames school district officials stood by the curriculum despite controversy and criticism. In March, the Iowa House Government Oversight Committee questioned Ames School District Officials in a nearly two-hour meeting. Republican lawmakers called parts of the material “indoctrination.”

Rep. Dean Fisher (R-Montour) shared some of the fourth grade materials to Facebook stating, “I find it sick and perverted that a public school district thought it needed to push this kind of perverse crap on our children.”

The content included a comprehensive list of LGBTQ vocabulary and their definitions, such as various sexual orientations, gender identities, derogatory terms and slang.

“Ten year old kids should not be exposed to that and it certainly isn’t the school’s responsibility to teach kids that stuff,” Fisher said. “It has nothing to do with a proper education and everything to do with a bizarre agenda.”

Parts of the Black Lives Matter Week of Action principles discussed, “disrupting the nuclear family,” which Fisher feels crosses a line public schools should not cross.

“That’s teaching an ideology and a goal, not just teaching you history,” Fisher said. “You can certainly talk about issues and history without presenting a dogmatic agenda.”

He said discussing modern issues and current events has a place in public schools, but are more appropriate at a high school and junior high level.

Rep. Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) and longtime educator within the Marshalltown Community School District said she was embarrassed by how Ames school district officials were treated by her fellow legislators.

She does not feel like the Ames school district had bad intentions and feels they were trying to be transparent with their programming.

“I’m a firm believer that schools are places where we come to look at events and we come to look at situations, and maybe get a different perspective then what is already in our minds,” Cahill said.

Marshalltown Community School District Director of Instruction Lisa Stevenson said there is not any part of their curriculum that is entirely devoted to the topics surrounding the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. She said there is not a lot of room in the expansive curriculum for discussion of social issues and current events throughout the day, but major historic moments, such as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, are an exception.

“We’d be remiss if we didn’t allow students to ask questions, talk to each other, learn in the classroom,” Stevenson said.

She said when it comes to inclusivity of gender identities and sexual orientation, the district takes their lead from state and national organizations, and what the protected classes are.

Color, race, sex, sexual orientation and gender identify are all protected classes in the area of education under Iowa Code.

“I think people would be surprised at the content we’re asked to share information about with our students and cover,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson noted under the accreditation standards by the state for public schools, students in grades one through six are to receive education on family life, human sexuality, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, emotional health and social health.

At Woodbury Elementary School, one of the only times intentional discussions related to issues surrounding race, sexuality and gender may come up is in the student’s morning meetings Principal Anel Garza said. The reasoning a discussion may come up is if a related situation occurred the previous day and it needed to be addressed, but a situation has yet to occur Garza said.

She said discussions of race, sexuality and gender do have a place in schools including for students at the elementary level.

“It’s a place where we can give them a safe environment so we can talk about the facts and how our world is nowadays,” Garza said. “It allows them to see the other person’s point of view or see the other side. I don’t think it’s a place to teach right or wrong. I think it’s a place where we need to show our kids that we need to be open and that we need to understand, even though we may not agree with the other side.”

Contact Trevor Babcock at 641-753-6611 or tbabcock@timesrepublican.com.

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