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Not So Happily Ever After

A complaint by a parent prompts the Camarillo school district to launch an inquiry after a gay teacher discussed his marriage with students.

March 24, 2004|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Ron Fanelle, a Camarillo middle school teacher, had hoped to keep his personal life out of the classroom.

But that all changed when his seventh- and eighth-grade students recently asked him about a rumor that he was gay and had married his longtime partner in San Francisco. The social studies teacher told his students it was all true.

Since then, the parents of one of Fanelle's students pulled their child out of his class, the father of another accused him at a public board meeting of pushing a pro-gay agenda and Fanelle filed complaints against two teachers accusing them of helping to spread the word among students about his homosexuality.

Meanwhile, the Pleasant Valley School District has launched an investigation into the matter.

"Our intent is to make sure we have all the facts and we preserve everyone's rights," Supt. Tom Dase said Monday. "We're not investigating an individual, and we're certainly not investigating Mr. Fanelle because he's homosexual."

Fanelle said the whole episode started shortly after his Valentine's Day marriage to Randy Serak, his partner of 15 years.

His colleagues at Monte Vista Middle School, including Principal Sara Davis, knew that he was gay and had gotten married. They even congratulated him at a staff meeting.

But one teacher, Fanelle said, told her students about his marriage and another remained silent while her students discussed it.

Word spread quickly through the school. When Fanelle got to his classroom that day, his students asked him about the rumor.

"The kids walked in and there was a buzz about it," Fanelle said. "They said, 'We heard you got married on Valentine's Day; is it true?' I said yes. They asked, 'Was it a man?' I said yes. Then they gave me a standing ovation."

They also asked his partner's name, how long they had been together and why he did not wear a wedding ring or have a picture of Serak on his desk.

"I said, 'His name is Randy. It was a beautiful wedding. Any other questions?' " said Fanelle, who has taught in the district for five years.

A boy began muttering negative comments under his breath, and Fanelle read aloud the sexual harassment code in a student handbook. He also used the opportunity to talk about suffrage, bigotry and the Magna Carta.

Afterward, the school received one complaint from a parent, who later backed off, Fanelle said.

But a few weeks later, parent David Maddux, who does not have a child in Fanelle's class, brought up the matter at the March 4 school board meeting, which was televised on local cable TV.

"I come to you tonight with a heavy heart," Maddux told the board. "A seventh-grade history teacher announced to his students he's gay. I'm very upset and disappointed that this person was bringing his homosexual platform to the classroom. Mr. Fanelle opened a homosexual dialogue, telling his class he used to be married and he decided he wanted to be homosexual. He said he had homosexual feelings and tendencies."

Fanelle said he never announced to students he was gay, was never married before and never "decided" he wanted to be homosexual.

Maddux did not return phone calls.

But his public statements sparked the school board to launch an investigation, said President Sandra Berg. "[Fanelle] got married and came back and somehow the kids found out about it," Berg said.

"We're trying to teach appropriate behavior toward people's personal lives. We're trying to set parameters and find out what the appropriate procedures would be for kids."

Meantime, many parents have rallied to support Fanelle, including Daren Merchant, whose two children were taught by Fanelle when he worked at Los Altos Middle School.

"Both my son and daughter have the highest regards for Ron as a teacher and as a person," Merchant wrote to Davis, the Monte Vista principal. "It's rare at any time to hear of a student that praises a teacher for his or her effort."

Monte Vista parent Elizabeth Rice also wrote a letter in support of Fanelle, although Rice's seventh-grade son is not in his class.

"I, for one, find nothing distressing whatsoever in a teacher indicating his or her sexual orientation to my children," Rice wrote to Davis.

"As I am sure you are aware, the angry voices you hear at Monte Vista do not speak for many of us. Indeed, I believe equally strongly that we should not continue the prejudice against, and denial of civil rights to, this minority group."

Parent Lori Lester, whose son is not in Fanelle's class, said she supported the teacher but believed he was fighting an uphill battle in the conservative community.

"From what I understand, he went to San Francisco and got married, and parents here in Camarillo, being ultra-conservative, didn't like it," she said. "Good luck having to deal with it in this environment."

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