Oct. 10--For years, a program sponsored by the West Virginia Attorney General's office has attempted to squash school bullies, but opponents say it is really promoting a "gay agenda."

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:

  • Wear a "LesBiGay positive" button or a T-shirt with a "Straight, But Not Narrow" slogan or a pink triangle.
  • Tell students not to assume all their classmates are heterosexual, but acknowledge that some students are homosexual and bisexual.
  • Avoid using traditional terms such as boyfriend, girlfriend, wife or husband and broaden their language to include "partner, lover, significant other." Teachers are also advised to use "permanent relationship" instead of "marriage."
  • Identify the contributions of homosexuals in history, literature, art, science and religion and expand libraries to include books related to sexual diversity.
  • 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."

    "It's just sad that people can't agree on this," Sheridan continued. "Bullying is wrong. There shouldn't be any controversy about that. People can differ on strategies [on how to address the problem]. There can be different strategies."

    One teacher whose school participates in the Civil Rights Team Project said the allegations against the program were erroneous and misleading. Travis Baldwin, who supervises the Civil Rights Team Project at Sissonville High School in Charleston, W. Va., said the guidelines he received only gave guidance on how to set up a program and could not be interpreted as promoting a gay agenda. The charges against the project, Baldwin said, left him "flabbergasted."

    "The only mention of gay and lesbian and bisexual issues deals with the fact that all students should be treated equally in any setting, regardless of sex, religion, culture," Baldwin said. "It was a way of teaching tolerance and acceptance of the differences of the minority within the majority as well as those of majority within the minority."

    "The charges I heard against the project were so erroneous, it was laughable," Baldwin said. "Some of these ultra-conservative groups don't even want the word 'homosexual' mentioned in the public schools at all."

    The Civil Rights Team Project started at Sissonville High School last fall. Baldwin said he encourages students in his school's program to participate in all community activities that deal with civil rights. When the controversy erupted in August, he said he sent a letter to parents encouraging them to contact him if they had any concerns and questions. So far, he said he has not received any negative feedback. "Our membership has probably doubled in size this year," Baldwin said.

    Some critics do not mind having school anti-bullying programs but prefer to not have them focus on special groups of any kind. "You can have a blanket anti-abuse policy where you tell students don't bother anyone of any kind, without reference to special criteria," said Peter LaBarbera, senior policy analyst for The Culture and Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America. "We've been dealing with these kinds of programs for years. The reason why we're opposed to these programs is because they say they're concerned about children's safety, but then they become politicized to promote homosexuality."

    LaBarbera stressed that he does not endorse the bullying and harassment of gays and lesbians. He said an anti-bullying program could be established without indoctrinating others to the lifestyle and beliefs of a particular group. "We're all for protecting students," LaBarbera said. "Anyone who picks on a gay person, especially if they're weaker, is despicable. ... People get bullied and teased for all kinds of reasons. But when you look at the manual of the program in West Virginia, its recommendations come right out of [the mouths of] gay activists."

    LaBarbera and The West Virginia Family Foundation argue that the Project will train students to spy on others who do not share their values. The Project and other similar anti-bullying programs, they said, encouraged lack of tolerance for Christianity. Under these measures, Christian students and teachers could be accused of harassment for merely talking about their beliefs.

    "It is their way of saying religion contributes to homophobia," said LaBarbera. "We don't get the same respect from gays for traditional religion that we are expected to give for their lifestyle. They tend to believe that people who don't agree with their lifestyle is intolerant. But people have a right in this country to believe that homosexuality is not an acceptable lifestyle."

    LaBarbera said the Family and Culture Institute has received a growing number of harassment complaints from Christians who say they are being bullied because of their traditional beliefs and values. More people, he said, are being harassed for "not being politically correct." "Why can't we have something in the manual that says don't pick on Christians?" LaBarbera asked.

    The debate in West Virginia is likely to continues for some time. McCoy hopes to ultimately eliminate the Civil Rights Team Project while Sheridan hopes many parents and schools won't be scared away from the program.

    McCoy and his supporters believe issues of tolerance regarding gays and lesbians should be left out of the schools and with the Legislature and state school board. "Any decisions made on this controversial subject should be made by the West Virginia Legislature and the West Virginia state school and not from politically correct programs originating anywhere else," McCoy said.

    Sheridan cannot help but see irony in the debate over his anti-bullying program. The anti-bullying measures passed in West Virginia in the past year, he said, call for programs like The Civil Rights Team Project. "Part of the irony is that if you read the policies, they require that schools implement state programs such as this collaborative one," Sheridan said. "It's already there. It's already in place."

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