NC legislators’ wrath prods CMS to pull lesson about a boy in a dress

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rescinded an anti-bullying lesson based on this book after Republican legislators objected.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rescinded an anti-bullying lesson based on this book after Republican legislators objected.

Facing outrage from Republican state legislators, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Tuesday reversed plans to use “Jacob’s New Dress,” a picture book about a boy who likes to dress like a girl, in all CMS first-grade classes.

The book had been selected as part of the anti-bullying program. After a teacher complained to lawmakers, Charles Jeter, the district’s government liaison, says he talked to both sides to “find a resolution without the General Assembly finding a resolution.”

Tuesday afternoon, Jeter emailed about two dozen Republican legislators to say CMS had agreed to pull the book and substitute “Red: A Crayon’s Story,” about a crayon that looks red but sees himself as blue.

“I wanted to reassure them that we had heard them and we were making that change,” said Jeter, a former Republican state representative who resigned last summer.

Regardless of the decision on the elementary school lessons, CMS is plunging back into the thick of one of North Carolina’s biggest cultural rifts. The latest flap comes almost exactly one year after the state legislature passed the controversial House Bill 2 “bathroom bill.” The state has lost jobs and sports events ever since because that bill, which came in response to a Charlotte City Council LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance, restricts LGBT protection.

Now the school board is preparing to add sexual orientation and “gender identity/expression” to its policy on multiculturalism, along with such things as race, religion and national origin. The proposed new policy, which will be up for a public hearing Tuesday, calls for CMS to “intentionally incorporate diversity throughout the curriculum, instruction and professional development.”

For some families, open support of children with nontraditional gender identities or sexual orientation comes as welcome affirmation of young people who are more likely to be bullied and commit suicide.

“It gets our students, our faculty a way to be themselves and be protected,” said Rodney Tucker, executive director of Charlotte’s Time Out Youth program.

Time Out Youth is working with CMS to pilot the Welcoming Schools program. That program, which includes “Jacob’s New Dress” and “Red: A Crayon’s Story” on its reading list, is designed by the national Human Rights Campaign to help elementary schools become “LGBTQ-inclusive” and “gender-expansive.” But Tucker said the lesson plan that alarmed state lawmakers isn’t part of that effort. Instead, he says, it came from CMS alone.

For other families, such moves come as an invasive attempt to teach values they reject on religious grounds.

“The purpose of our elementary schools is to teach writing, reading and arithmetic, not to encourage boys to wear dresses,” Tami Fitzgerald of the North Carolina Values Coalition said Tuesday. “These lessons found in the ‘Jacob’s New Dress’ and ‘My Princess Boy’ and other transgender curriculum are not appropriate for any child whose parents support traditional family values.”

Within hours of articles being posted about the latest flap, the Values Coalition sent a fund-raising email depicting the CMS logo in rainbow colors, urging supporters to email the school board and “put a stop to this privacy-invading political correctness.”

Complaints about the elementary school lesson on transgender youth arose after the “Jacob’s New Dress” lesson plans went out last week. The lessons, which were supposed to be done by early April, upset some teachers, said one who asked not to be named. “People are afraid to say anything,” the teacher said.

In August, CMS announced anti-bullying regulations that included staff training on respecting and protecting LGBT students. The Values Coalition protested at a school board meeting and deluged board members with emails, claiming the new program indoctrinated children to support homosexuality and gender flexibility.

At the time, Superintendent Ann Clark said the lessons – including a purple cartoon “gender unicorn” that became a symbol for protesters – were aimed only at faculty, not students.

Tuesday evening, Clark sent this description of the lesson plan that sparked the latest controversy: “In support of Child Abuse Prevention Month and in compliance with Title IX, the district has developed one age-appropriate lesson for each grade level to be conducted annually. The lesson will help students understand how to recognize harassment and bullying, what to do if it happens to them and how to help someone else who may be experiencing it.”

“The initial first-grade book selection, which focuses on valuing uniqueness and difference, has been replaced due to some concerns about the book,” she added.

Jeter, a Republican, said he learned about the proposed lessons from former colleagues who had been tipped off by a teacher. He says he confirmed it with top CMS officials and told them they were in danger of triggering a backlash similar to HB2, which was passed after Charlotte City Council approved an LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance.

Jeter says he personally supports protection of LGBT students, but called the move “an unforced error by CMS.”

“It’s disconcerting, to say the least,” Jeter said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s one of those things that the optics in our community are what they are around this issue.”

Clark said the multicultural education policy doesn’t mandate any specific curriculum. The board is reviewing and updating many policies, including that one.

“In 1993, when the policy was originally written, the groups were limited to race, gender, national origin, ‘different abilities,’ and religion,” Clark wrote. “Now, 24 years later, we need to expand the recognized groups to be consistent with other CMS policies and North Carolina law and our changing society.”

At a policy committee meeting earlier this month, board members said they wanted to make sure the multiculturalism policy isn’t just empty words. The first draft said only that CMS would “acknowledge diversity;” the committee asked that “intentionally incorporate diversity” be added.

“I hear from parents all the time that we aren’t teaching children of color history reflective of them,” said board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms