Opt-Out Forms Shield Kids From Objectionable School Material

July 7, 2008 - 8:20 PM

(CNSNews.com) - A California group is offering parents a tool to keep their public school students away from courses or assignments that offend the family's religious beliefs.

Parents are using opt-out forms drafted in consultation with the Pacific Justice Institute and designed to protect children from what the parents consider controversial, morally objectionable or age-inappropriate material taught in public schools. The institute also offers legal counseling and services to parents so they will have an ally in court if school officials don't comply.

"Filing an opt-out form is a critical first step in protecting a child from potentially harmful material," said Brad Dacus, an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute. "It instantly places the parent in a stronger legal position to challenge school curriculum or activities that violate their rights."

Many parents are using the opt-out forms to keep their kids out of classes that teach or reference homosexual, transvestite or trans-sexual lifestyles, Dacus said. Another issue sparking demand for opt-out forms is the teaching of Islamic forms of worship and role-playing, he added.

The trouble started in 2000 when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and the Democratic-controlled California Legislature passed two bills that incensed conservative parents.

Assembly Bill 1785 required "tolerance" education to be interwoven in curriculum for all grade levels in public schools, including kindergarten, while A.B. 1931 started a taxpayer-funded grant program for taking children on field trips to teach them "diversity and tolerance." Diversity was defined to include "sexual orientation."

Searching for a way to keep their kids away from objectionable material, parents turned to California's Education Code 49091.10, which gives parents the right to review a complete prospectus of everything a child's teachers will be using throughout the school year, including curricula, supplemental materials, required or recommended reading and speakers.

The law also assures parents the right to observe any classroom or other activities and remove their child from certain objectionable course materials. They can't excuse their child altogether from academic classes like English, math and science. But they can opt out of a particular portion of a class that violates their convictions-including "evolution in a science class or a particular novel in English class," said Dacus.

In such cases, teachers give alternative, reasonable assignments for the student to complete, he said. "The school district has to comply" with a written opt-out request. If they don't, then they're begging for a lawsuit."

And, in fact, the institute is already representing eight parents in a suit filed earlier this year against California's Novato Unified School District. The parents object to a school-sanctioned medley of plays, songs and poems called "Cootie Shots: Inoculations Against Bigotry for Kids, Parents and Teachers," which the parents allege was presented to kids without prior parental consent.

The play, which admonishes students against prejudices, including homophobia, began touring public elementary schools in the state during the late 1990s.

Dacus believes the school system could teach kids not to name-call without a play that includes dialogue like "'I'm gay and that's OK.'"

Kate Kendell, executive director of the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the opt-out provision in state law should not be used to expunge any and all mention of homosexual lifestyles.

"Parents have latitude to make decisions with regard to some aspects of curriculum," said Kendell. But "to the extent that an opt-out provision would be used to forbid any mention in a child's presence of the existence of lesbian and gay people ... violates the spirit of the opt-out provision and shouldn't be allowed.

"The opt-out provision is designed to allow parents who object to having a full conversation about lesbian and gay issues in a classroom" the option of taking their kids out of the conversation, said Kendell.

But the opt-out provision shouldn't apply "if it were to happen incidentally, in some conversation or mention in passing, or some kid was doing a report about their summer vacation and talked about 'me and my two moms went to such and such,'" she said.

Kendell applauds state policies that include, as part of the teaching curriculum, a message of acceptance for homosexual lifestyles. "It's fair for schools to make value judgments about things like bias, prejudice, intolerance, divisiveness."

E-mail a news tip to Christine Hall.

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