The Civil Rights Team Project, a school anti-bullying program organized by the state attorney general's office, has been under fire since August, when the West Virginian Family Foundation accused it of being a veiled promotional tool for homosexuality.The foundation, a conservative Christian organization that supports the "traditional" family and family values, filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the attorney general's office and 20 schools to find out which students have participated in the program.
It argues that the Civil Rights Team Project is not really designed to counter bullying but to advance the "gay agenda"--promoting homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle and perhaps add momentum to a movement to give gays and lesbians special status as a protected class under state hate-crime laws. "The gay agenda is the promotion and open acceptance of this chosen lifestyle as normal and on par with heterosexuality in every facet of society," said Kevin McCoy, president of the West Virginia Family Foundation. "The Civil Rights Team Project training materials certainly promotes this agenda without question."
The project, critics argue, is not needed because the state Legislature has passed anti-bullying measures and West Virginia School State Board has adopted codes of conduct that protect all students from bullying and harassment. "The fact is the 'project' is really nothing more than hate crimes training for children under the guise of an anti-bullying program," said McCoy. "West Virginia hate crime statute does not include sexual orientation as a protected class, nor is there a federal hate crime statute with this definition. Where does the attorney general obtain his authority to unilaterally implement a political program behind the backs of the citizens of this state?"
Project organizers argue that they do not have a hidden agenda. The Civil Rights Project, run by West Virginia Attorney General's Civil Rights Division, is modeled after an anti-bullying program that was started in Maine in 1996 and has been offered to high schools and middle schools since 1999.
The project consists of teams of three students per grade at participating schools who, with the help of faculty advisers, help educate their classmates on issues bias, prejudice and tolerance.
The purpose of the program, organizers say, is to have students encourage their fellow students to accept other classmates' differences, discourage bullying and report instances of bullying and name-calling. "With bullying behavior, we've found that they [students] do it often for peer support and to get bragging rights of their peers," said Paul Sheridan, project coordinator of the Civil Rights Project. "It is has been our experience that students are more familiar with the social climate of their school than parents and sometimes teachers. One of the things the program does is enlist students in shifting the climate of the school. A group of students spend the year working together to address the problem of intolerance within their schools and they are monitored by a faculty adviser."
Sheridan said the project has been popular among parents and schools. Participation in it is voluntary and individual schools handle parental notification and roles in the program differently. These kind of programs, he said, are encouraged to help prevent the circumstances that lead to school shootings and give students an opportunity to participate in an activity that benefits their community; develop their character; and perhaps enables them to get college scholarship opportunities.
Still, critics of the Civil Rights Team Project say it goes beyond combating bullies--and parents have been complaining. McCoy said uproar began when parents at a state school board meeting expressed concern about the program and demanded that it come to an end.
Despite Sheridan's claims, McCoy says, there is clear evidence his program is promoting a gay agenda. He cites the project's training manual, which recommends that teachers:
Project organizers say they deal with intolerance of all kinds--racial, ethnic, sexual, religious and homophobic. However, schools participating in the program may choose to deal with issues that are most affecting their students. One school, Sheridan said, may use the program to focus on primarily racial intolerance and not gay intolerance. "The notion that we're promoting some kind of gay agenda ... it's just absurd," Sheridan said. "Intolerance and bullying in whatever form it takes varies from school to school. ... In middle school, if a student is perceived as being homosexual, there's a chance he is going to get the same kind of slur that many adults hear. The fact is harassment of that kind occurs in school. For some people to insinuate that a certain kind of bullying is morally acceptable is just nuts."