Local News

Tuesday, Aug 28 2012 10:37 PM

Opt-out form not an option

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    With the Tehachapi Unified School District board behind him, Schools Legal Service attorney Alan Harris talks to community members briefly about issues regarding the "Safe and Inclusive Schools" curriculum .

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Tehachapi high school English teacher Nancy Wahlstrom gives her views on the controversial anti-harassment curriculum.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Jonathan Simpson, a sophomore at Tehachapi high school, addresses the school board regarding the "Safe and Inclusive Schools" curriculum.

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BY JORGE BARRIENTOS Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

TEHACHAPI -- Citing advice from district lawyers, Tehachapi Unified School District's board did not take a vote Tuesday night to make available a form parents could sign to exclude their children from learning parts of a new and controversial anti-harassment curriculum.

Lawyers cautioned the board and concerned Tehachapi residents during a meeting that doing so could have severe consequences.

They said a so-called "opt-out" provision could:

* Put the district at risk of losing roughly $2.5 million per year in federal school funding for an unknown amount of time;

* Result in the district being found in contempt of court -- leading to more fines and penalties;

* And could result in federal sanctions being extended past 2016, when current sanctions are set to expire.

"In my opinion ... the kind of curriculum that's being developed by the board cannot come with a provision to opt out," said Schools Legal Services attorney Chris Hine, joined by colleague Al Harris.

Instead, Harris said, the school district should be as transparent as possible with the public in developing the curriculum. Parents should review the curriculum, and if they still disagree with the material, or believe it undermines religious beliefs, for example, parents could decide themselves whether to send their children to school to learn the curriculum.

"We just cannot get in between parents, their children, the church and religion," Harris told the board and audience.

Half a dozen parents spoke for and against the curriculum Tuesday night at Monroe High School's gymnasium. Some said it focuses too much on harassment of one type of people, or seemed to have a pro-gay agenda. Others said it provides comprehensive instruction that teaches students to simply treat everyone with respect.

School officials, parents and community members from the six-campus, 4,400-student district for more than a year have been developing the "Safe and Inclusive Schools" curriculum as part of a slew of federal mandates imposed on it by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

Those mandates came after the 2010 suicide of local 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who hanged himself after being bullied at school for being gay.

The district, according to Department of Education investigators, did not adequately investigate or respond to the bullying.

The Tehachapi Unified board late last month approved anti-harassment curriculum for its kindergarten through fifth-graders -- which focused on anti-bullying and the Golden Rule. The high school curriculum is still being developed, and includes instruction on sexual- and gender-based harassment.

The board held off on approving an opt-out form last month after federal officials told the district the form would violate the district's agreement to provide harassment training for all students.

The situation put district officials in a tough spot -- needing to comply with federal orders and respecting the views of the conservative eastern Kern community.

Some parents Tuesday night warned school officials that parents would keep their kids from going to class if the anti-harassment curriculum was taught because it went against their religious beliefs. If that's the case, the district could lose federal funding that comes with daily student attendance.

Tehachapi High sophomore Jonathan Simpson told the board that the new curriculum would take away from other valuable instructional time, in preparation for state testing, for example. He also said the anti-harassment curriculum was "unfairly unbalanced."

"Nobody deserves unfair treatment," Simpson said. "However, all groups deserve equal representation."

Veteran Tehachapi teacher Nancy Wahlstrom, speaking in favor of the curriculum, said she wants students to not feel intimidated, or be in fear, when they come to school.

"I want our children to treat others with kindness and respect," she said.

Peggy Horn, parent of four Tehachapi public school students, said that after she read the K-12 curriculum, she realized an opt-out form would not be necessary.

"It teaches acceptance of all people," she said. "It's something all religions can embrace."

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