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Schools and Gays: Where Should Line Be Drawn?

February 05, 1989

Certain members of the community have expressed concerns regarding an instructional unit dealing with homosexuality that is presented in the psychology course at Corona del Mar High School. The initial expressions of concern now seem to be evolving into a pattern usually associated with attempts at censorship. That pattern involves first demanding the removal of the offending topic, book or idea from the curriculum and, failing that, demanding that the point of view(s) acceptable to the complainant(s) be added to the curriculum. Consistent with that pattern, the complaint/demands now being expressed in the controversy include:

* That homosexuality is not an appropriate topic for discussion in high school and thus should be dropped from the psychology curriculum.

* That if homosexuality is to be discussed in the classroom, then equal time should be provided for the heterosexual point of view.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with controversy. Honest people can and do have honest disagreements. The public has a fundamental, vested right to express concerns regarding the school curriculum; however, that right does not extend to censorship.

If all of the topics that might be considered inappropriate by certain individuals or certain groups in the community were to be removed from the high school curriculum, then we would likely not teach about communism, religion, racial prejudice, the death penalty, Watergate or biological reproduction. The appropriateness of controversial subject matter is a complex issue involving the relevance of the subject matter to the total course, the intellectual and emotional maturity of the involved students, and the method of presentation used by the teacher.

The operant questions regarding appropriateness in this case are:

* Is sexual identity a topic that is relevant to an introductory psychology course?

* Are 11th- and 12th-grade students intellectually and emotionally mature enough to discuss different life styles in general and homosexuality in particular?

* Is the teacher of the course the best judge of the proper methods of presenting the subject matter of the course?

If these questions are addressed in an objective and rational manner, I believe that each will be answered in the affirmative.

The second complaint/demand "that if homosexuality is discussed in the classroom by homosexuals, then equal time should be provided for the heterosexual viewpoint," reflects the second part of the censorship pattern, i.e., if the school will not remove the targeted material from the curriculum, then material deemed appropriate by the complainants should be added.

The presentation of opposing viewpoints on controversial issues does occur in classrooms. On some occasions, students are assigned to debate a certain issue. In other circumstances, guest speakers may be invited to present their partisan points of view in a discussion/debate format. This has occurred at the high school on various topics including political candidacies and issues, slow-growth versus pro-development, and right-to-life versus planned parenthood. But in all of the instances wherein two opposing viewpoints are presented, it is because each viewpoint is being expressed to persuade, indoctrinate or convince students of the merits of a certain partisan position.

The protagonists are actively attempting to directly "teach" only one side of an issue. In those situations it is obviously incumbent upon the teacher to guarantee that both sides of the issue are presented. However, for a number of reasons, those instances wherein the "debate" approach is utilized are the exception rather than the rule.

In far more cases the teacher presents the controversial topic in an informational context rather than a persuasive one. The teacher does not teach religion; rather, he/she teaches about religion. The teacher does not teach communism; rather, he/she teaches about communism.

In those situations there is no attempt to persuade, indoctrinate or convince students of the merits of a particular point of view and thus, in the context of that type of lesson, there is no "other side."

It is that approach that has been utilized in the psychology class at the high school. The instructional unit is about different life styles. The gay and lesbian guest speakers are there to discuss the impact of being "different." They discuss how their life style has affected family, friends and self. They are explicitly prohibited from trying to persuade, indoctrinate or convince the students of the virtues of the homosexual life style.

That heterosexuality is the mainstream, preferred life style of the vast majority of the population is implicitly clear in the context of the instructional unit. In previous years, convicted felons have been brought to school to talk about the impact of their "different" life styles on family, friends and self.

They did not extol the virtues of a life of crime. No one suggested that there was a need to provide "equal time" for proponents of the law-abiding life style. For similar reasons there is no need, in the current situation, to provide "equal time" for the advocacy of heterosexuality.

Homosexuality is obviously an emotional issue with some people. However, it is important to remember that it is neither unlawful nor is it considered, in medical terms, to be an illness. While some individuals and some religious groups may condemn it as immoral, others do not.

The approach that the teacher in this situation has taken, the presentation of the subject matter in an objective, rational manner and the avoidance of moralistic/sectarian judgments--is both pedagogically and legally sound.



Newport Harbor High School

Dennis L. Evans is a former principal of Corona del Mar High School.

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