CMS sexual harassment case, not LGBT advocacy, led to ‘boy in a dress’ uproar

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rescinded an anti-bullying lesson based on this book after Republican legislators objected.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rescinded an anti-bullying lesson based on this book after Republican legislators objected.

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools sent out the first-grade lesson on “Jacob’s New Dress” that sparked a furor among state legislators, it wasn’t part of the district’s ongoing effort to make schools safer and more accepting for LGBT students.

Instead, it was a response to a federal investigation of sexual harassment by students and employees that began in 2013. By choosing a picture book about a boy who likes girl’s clothes to anchor a lesson for 6-year-olds on avoiding unwanted touches, CMS plunged itself into North Carolina’s culture wars over transgender rights.

In the process, the district also brought public attention to a previously undisclosed report by the federal Office of Civil Rights, which found shortcomings in the way CMS has responded to sexual harassment complaints involving students and employees. An investigation that ran from June 2013 to November 2015 covered 96 complaints, which ranged from boys groping girls at school to a high school teacher making suggestive comments to a student during class.

The irony: The Observer obtained 25 pages of documents related to that investigation. Transgender students and sexual orientation issues are never mentioned.

This week’s controversy brought a rare point of agreement from both sides of the LGBT chasm: The flare-up over this lesson could undermine confidence in CMS.

“We would have told them not to use that book because it doesn’t make sense,” said Rodney Tucker, executive director of Time Out Youth, a Charlotte LGBT support group. The group is working with CMS to roll out a Welcoming Schools program, which was created by LGBT advocates but tries to counteract bullying of all kinds. When legislators complained about the first-grade lesson, some people mistakenly believed it was part of the Welcoming Schools pilot.

Meanwhile, the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition used the “Jacob’s New Dress” lesson, which was pulled after Republican legislators objected, as proof that CMS has been dishonest about its intentions and plans to to “push an LGBT ideology on children as young as first grade.”

The timing could hardly be worse for CMS, which is trying to rally public support for school bonds, student assignment changes and a leadership transition. The district is also updating its multicultural education policy to include sexual orientation and gender expression among the aspects of diversity that will be incorporated “throughout the curriculum, instruction and professional development.”

And on the one-year anniversary of North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which restricts LGBT protections, the controversial CMS lesson plan feeds the narrative among conservative lawmakers that Charlotte liberals are pushing an agenda that violates religious values.

Sensitivity about reading material is running high across the state. A parent protested to Union County Schools after her 8-year-old read “Is He a Girl?” in class at Rea View Elementary in Waxhaw. The school’s review committee decided not to remove it from the classroom book collection, said spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte.

What led to CMS lesson

Superintendent Ann Clark and school board members said they didn’t know about the lesson based on “Jacob’s New Dress” until Charles Jeter, a former state legislator who now works as the CMS government liaison, told them lawmakers were up in arms. Legislators had been contacted by at least one teacher who was upset by the mandated lesson.

Clark decided to pull not only the first-grade lesson but all other grade levels for review.

CMS leaders did know about the long process that led up to the lessons, starting with a 2013 notice from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights that CMS was being reviewed for its handling of sexual harassment and sexual violence complaints.

“Compliance review sites are selected based on various sources of information, including statistical data and information from parents, advocacy groups, the media and community organizations,” the letter said.

Clark said discussions about the ensuing investigation and settlement took place in closed school board sessions.

A report sent to Clark in November 2015 says investigators pulled records of 96 sexual harassment complaints from students dating back to 2010-11 and running through fall of 2013-14. Those included:

▪ Sixty-three reports of unwelcome sexual touching, which ranged from hugging and touching a bra strap to groping breast and buttocks. All 36 complaints against students were substantiated, and 13 of 27 complaints against employees were substantiated.

▪ Seventeen of the 63 unwelcome touching complaints rose to the level of sexual assault, including 14 committed by students and three by employees.

▪ The other 33 complaints involved such things as sexual gestures and graffiti and sharing explicit pictures.

The Office of Civil Rights found that before 2014 CMS did not have written procedures for handling student-on-student complaints and “did not provide for an adequate, reliable and impartial investigation.” Updated procedures made some improvements, the office concluded, but still failed to provide accused students a fair chance to defend themselves. It also noted several substantiated cases of serious offenses in which it was not clear from records that the victims received support services.

CMS changes ordered

The agreement negotiated between the federal government and CMS laid out a schedule of required training for employees and students, as well as annual school climate surveys that must be administered to middle and high schools to see if schools are “free of sexual and gender-based harassment.”

One of those requirements is annual “age-appropriate education at all schools designed to increase awareness of sexual and gender-based harassment,” including how to report it and intervene safely if students see someone being harassed. The agreement says that materials “will use age-appropriate terminology” and “promote sensitivity to and tolerance of the diversity of the student body, and will specifically address harassment issues related to sex and gender.”

The lessons were developed by counselor and teachers and reviewed by principals, Clark said Wednesday. They were sent out last week to coincide with Child Abuse Prevention Month, she said.

The first-grade plan calls for using “Jacob’s New Dress,” a story about a boy who’s picked on because he likes to wear dresses, to launch a discussion about how children would feel if people made fun of their clothes.

From there, teachers are supposed to introduce the term “harassment,” explain that it’s not allowed at school and give examples of unwanted touch, including hitting, pushing, pulling hair or clothes and giving unwanted hugs or kisses. Students are taught to stop, move away and tell a trusted adult if they experience harassment.

The lessons were sent to all schools, Clark said. On Tuesday, when Jeter had been trying to deal with legislators’ complaints and figure out what was going on, he said the lessons were sent to four schools. That was apparently a mix-up with the Welcoming Schools program, which is being piloted in a handful of schools this year.

Elyse Dashew, vice chair of the school board, said Wednesday that board members aren’t normally informed about lesson plans, but she wishes someone had recognized the likelihood that this book would trigger complaints.

“If a lesson plan is going to be introduced that is this politically sensitive, it probably would be good to give board members a heads-up,” she said.

Clark said CMS will review the sexual harassment lessons and move ahead with the Welcoming Schools pilot.

“I think we just continue to be clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” she said.

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