Backpack flier prompts Montgomery to consider banning such notes

Montgomery County school officials are considering whether to discontinue allowing the distribution of fliers from outside organizations after teens brought home a message in their backpacks last month that many found hurtful to gay people.

The controversial flier, distributed with report cards to students at five high schools, came from Parents and Friends of Ex-gays and Gays (PFOX), a Virginia-based organization that advocates that gay people can change their sexual orientation.

“Every year thousands of people with unwanted same-sex attractions make the personal decision to leave a gay identity,” said the announcement. The flier challenged the notion that people are “born gay” by saying that no one has ever found a gay gene. It encouraged students to seek help if they have feelings of same-sex attraction.

Many students and parents found the message offensive.

Mainstream medical and mental-health associations say that homosexuality is innate, a lesson that is also taught in the Montgomery health curriculum. PFOX has challenged aspects of the school system’s sex education curriculum in court. The curriculum was developed in 2004, then revised, and was implemented in 2007.

The American Medical Association opposes conversion therapies advocated by PFOX, which are based on assumptions that homosexuality is a mental disorder or that it can be changed.

Such therapies can lead to depression, anxiety or self-destructive behavior because they reinforce anti-gay prejudices, according to a position statement by the American Psychiatric Association.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr called the fliers “reprehensible and deplorable” at a town hall meeting at Wootton High School after two teens asked how he planned to respond. But he and other officials have said the law prevents interfering with the fliers’ distribution.

School policy permits any nonprofit organization to distribute fliers to students up to four times a year, unless the message is considered hate speech. The right was upheld in federal court in 2006, after the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland sued the school system for refusing to send home fliers promoting its after-school Bible study programs.

To remain neutral, school officials must allow any nonprofit group to send home messages — or forbid every group from doing so.

Now the Board of Education is considering a ban on backpack fliers.

Most area school systems permit community organizations to distribute administrator-approved fliers, but under varying circumstances. Arlington County does not allow nonprofits to distribute materials in high schools. In Loudoun County, outside community groups can leave fliers on a bulletin board or in a common area of the school. Several school districts, including Montgomery’s, include disclaimers that the messages are not endorsed by the school board, the superintendent or the school.

Montgomery board members voted Monday to refer the matter to the board’s policy subcommittee for review and to recommend changes. The committee is expected to meet March 20, and then the full school board would vote on any revisions.

David Fishback, advocacy chairman for the Metro D.C. chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, applauded Starr for speaking out against the fliers.

Peter Sprigg, a member of the board of directors of PFOX, told board members that it would be “reprehensible, deplorable and disgusting” if they decided to “punish” all nonprofit groups in the county because they disagreed with the messages of some.

The Rev. Grace Harley, also testifying on behalf of PFOX, said that the people she referred to as “ex-gay” are often discriminated against. She said she lived for 18 years as a transgender man named Joe before becoming an ex-gay woman. “I have suffered more intolerance as an ex-gay person than I ever did as a gay person,” she said.

The board voted 8 to 1 to pass a resolution to review the policy “in light of concerns raised by the community.”

Board member Laura Berthiaume (Rockville-Potomac) cast the dissenting vote. “I find it distressing to think we are shutting down a public forum just because the government — that’s us — disagrees with a viewpoint. I think it’s un-American,” she said.

School board member Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said at the meeting that it was important to review policies occasionally. In addition to the controversy surrounding the flier, she said in an interview that a backpack flier program could be out of date in the Internet age.

“It comes down to: Should our kids be the pony express for fliers?” she said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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