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Letter on Homosexuality Prompts Rebuke From Board

School Official's Comments on 'Lifestyle Choice' Lead to Flood of Responses From Fairfax Parents

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2005; Page B01

The Fairfax County School Board issued a public reprimand last night to a member who sent a letter to high school principals urging them to ensure that students hear the views of people who believe homosexuality is a choice and a "destructive lifestyle."

After a unanimous vote and a nearly two-hour closed session that ended about 11, Board Chairman Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) released a board statement criticizing the actions of Stephen M. Hunt (At Large).

Robert Rigby, a Falls Church High School teacher, said using a classroom setting to say that homosexuality is a choice could hurt gay students. (Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)

"The letter sent by Mr. Hunt was not authorized by and does not reflect the views of the School Board," according to the statement. "The School Board continues to support the family life education curriculum and its treatment of this sensitive subject."

This week, Hunt sent a letter to the district's 24 high school principals in which he expressed concerns over the way homosexuality is taught in the school system and encouraged the addition of speakers with an "ex-gay perspective."

Last night, Hunt apologized to the board, the principals, the staff and the community in a written statement and said he had "usurped board policy."

"The intent of my letter was to encourage an environment where there can be open discussion on this issue in order to foster understanding between people of different opinions in order to diffuse potential hostility that can result from the lack of that understanding," Hunt said in the statement. "I apologize . . . especially [to] those of the homosexual community, that may have been given the impression that I do not respect their rights."

Earlier yesterday, as news of the letter spread, so did the debate over a school district's role in teaching about sex and sexual preference.

Robert Rigby Jr., a gay Fairfax County schoolteacher, expressed concern that Hunt's letter might be harmful to gay students.

"The problem with promoting the ex-gay movement is it is part of a larger movement that is against gay people," Rigby said.

Hunt's letter was not reviewed by any of his colleagues on the 12-member board, and several said it was inappropriate because principals might have believed it was endorsed by the board. The two-page letter was written on personal stationery, but the signature identified Hunt as a School Board member.

Several board members said yesterday that they were flooded with e-mails and phone calls on the issue, many from people angered by Hunt's letter and some from people who support his views.

The role that schools should play in lessons on sex and sexual orientation is among the most divisive topics handled by school officials. In 2003, Fairfax officials canceled a student survey that included questions about sex because the company hired to administer it feared that parents would sue.

And in Montgomery County last year, hundreds of people weighed in when the county Board of Education considered adding a video of a woman applying a condom to a cucumber to the high school sex education curriculum.

Hunt said yesterday that he never intended to spark public debate, nor does he want the school's curriculum to change. He said he is concerned that students who believe homosexuality is wrong cannot express their opinion without being considered discriminatory.

"I was trying to provide some information for principals," Hunt said before last night's meeting. "It's beneficial in any controversial issue to get the viewpoints from all sides."

Hunt also noted that he wrote in the letter that students "should be taught to respect the rights of others, but also that one does not have to accept the ideas of another in order to respect them."

Fairfax students in two classes -- ninth-grade biology and 10th-grade personal and community health -- learn about sexual orientation.

Under Fairfax's school policy, teachers tell students that the reason for homosexuality is unknown and that "people do not choose their sexual orientation."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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