A petition with nearly 700 signatures; hecklers who had to be called to order; religious leaders with conflicting views; elected officials invoking parental rights; an ACLU lawyer invoking the law; and school board members whose comments included terrorists, psychotics and recreational sex; all made for a dramatic public comment period at the school board meeting in Harford County on Monday, April 26, 2010.
At issue was a recent HCPS decision to lift the schools’ internet filter on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Web sites. The impetus was a letter to HCPS from the ACLU, saying that the categorical filtering of LGBT sites was unlawful. From stakeholders, there was passion on both sides, with some thanking the school board for swift and just action, and others calling to bring back the ban.
Here is ACLU letter:
Before the public had their say, the school board amended their agenda to include a PowerPoint presentation explaining the rationale for lifting the filter in late January.
Clearly, HCPS got wind of the public turnout in advance, possibly thanks to an e-mail sent by Maryland State Delegate Rick Impallaria rallying support for the ban.
School Board Attorney Patrick Spicer offered background, citing the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which requires that sites containing obscenity, child pornography or content harmful to minors be filtered. Spicer said that HCPS continues to block such content. But he also pointed to state law and HCPS policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation, saying they were the reason the filter was lifted on LGBT sites not proscribed by CIPA. The LGBT filter was lifted on January 29, 2010.
In response to a request from The Dagger, HCPS said they could not provide a list of the newly unblocked sites, because of the nature of the filtering service. But here’s one site that was previously blocked, which The Dagger has confirmed is now accessible.
Spicer also explained that parents can decline internet access for their students by signing a form at the beginning of each school year, and parents can opt in or out at any time. But, he said that selective access to the internet was not practical to enforce, “It’s all or nothing.”
Drew Moore, director of information technology, later added that blocking different sites depending on the student would require the system’s nearly 40,000 students to have a separate profile, which would make selective access unmanageable.
School Board President Mark Wolkow asked how students would be impacted if their parents opted out of internet access. Superintendent Robert Tomback replied that students would not be penalized, because other types of research materials are available.
Next came the public’s turn to speak:
Reverend Lisa Ward, from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County, said that when she found out about the block, “I was shocked.” She thanked the board for their decision to lift the filter, “Thank you for doing the right thing.” She also said that HCPS allowed access to sites that condemned homosexuality, “HCPS doesn’t have the right to teach my children discrimination.”
Sara Waldron said that she had trouble carrying out a 9th grade assignment, which was to research a controversial issue. She said she had tried to get statistics on gay marriage but was blocked, while friends who were doing research against gay marriage had access to information.
Lauren Rogers, a graduate of Havre de Grace High, said she started an LGBT club while she was in high school, but didn’t have access to resources relevant to the club. She thanked the board for their decision.
Gary Ambridge declared “I call this the end of censorship in HCPS.” More of his comments are posted in the forum section here on The Dagger.
Joseph Smith thanked the board, saying he was an openly gay man, “We’re made in the image of God and I don’t think God makes mistakes.”
Fallston High School parent John Soos came out publicly as a gay man, telling the school board what he said his children already knew: “My children have a gay father”.
Ken Youngman, representing a group called “One Nation Under God”, presented a petition with 692 signatures and called for the board to reinstall the filter until parents could vote on whether or not the ban should continue. “Stick to the basic education issues” he told the school board “Leave the moral ones to us”.
Charles Hicks, a deacon at St. Mark’s Church in Fallston said ‘We have just been beaten to death…by the notion of tolerance and intolerance… as if to speak out against something we believe intensely against is intolerant.” He urged the board to allow access to Web sites based on what the majority of parents find acceptable.
Delegate Rick Impallaria, who is also a HCPS parent, told the board, “I don’t buy the intolerance argument.” He said morals were up to the parents and not to the school board. He suggested that students gain access to LGBT sites by opting in. “Human sexuality outside of reproduction really doesn’t belong in the school system, in my opinion.” Impallaria said sites that discriminate either for or against homosexuality should be blocked and “When a child has a problem, go to the guidance counselor, not the computer.”
Heckling began as Impallaria neared the end of his remarks, with calls for the time limit to be enforced and someone calling out “What are you talking about?”
Delegate Pat McDonough was up next, saying he was “seeing a lack of tolerance”, which prompted some more heckling.
McDonough responded, “Tolerance is a two-way street” But he said his main concern was the process. “We need to be fair and deliberate.” He said the board “quickly caved in” by unblocking the sites without stakeholder involvement, which he contrasted with the handling of Drama Therapy, a controversial program at Havre de Grace High School. “Why are we moving so quickly on this particular issue, is it because it’s politically correct?” He said stakeholders could come up with solutions that comply with the law.
Nine-year-old Maggie Jones took to the microphone to thank the school board” “It’s the right choice to let anybody go on.”
Candidate for Harford County executive Stephen Wright, who identified himself as the president of the Route 40 Republican Club, asked “Why are these Web sites necessary for the curriculum?” He asked if Christians and Jews would have to defend their religious beliefs about homosexual conduct and questioned whether a religious debate belonged in the schools. He asked the board to eliminate such issues from the curriculum and reconsider their decision, ending with “We should all tolerate each other in this world”
Last to speak on the topic was attorney Allison Harper, whose letter on behalf of the ACLU sparked the lifting of the LGBT ban. She said she had been brought into the issue at the request of community members. “I want to thank you for your rapid, positive and just response to the community.” She thanked the school board for their action, citing federal law in some detail, and adding that the Supreme Court had warned against letting negative reactions infringe on the constitutional rights of others.
Reaction from the Harford School Board
Board members voiced support for the school system’s action, although their reasons varied.
“It really doesn’t matter what we think… this is codified in federal and state law.” said Board Member John Smilko. But he added to Ms. Harper, “I have a low opinion of the ACLU…What I see here a demand for selective tolerance”. He said the ACLU was “all for terrorists” and “very anti-Christian”. That prompted another round of heckling, (“Are you elected?”), which prompted several calls for order from Board President Mark Wolkow. Smilko later said he apologized for losing his temper, but said he stood by his points.
Board Member Leonard Wheeler’s wide-ranging remarks started with support for following the law, but then invoked Hitler’s Germany and the Rev. Jim Jones, whom he said also had laws that people obeyed. He noted that within families there were “alcoholics, lesbians, homosexuals of all kinds, psychotics and pedophiles, they live among us” and said they should be protected. He discussed movie censorship, but drew a contrast: “This is education” adding that students should be exposed to knowledge. As for sexuality, he said there was a need to be honest: “Sex is…no longer just procreational, but recreational.” he said the question was “How do we handle it?” Wheeler concluded, “Even if the law was not out there, it would be the right thing to do.”
Board President Mark Wolkow said that the school system acted correctly, but lifting the filters was a non-issue. He said that HCPS had not been in compliance with the law, and acted to get into compliance. “I don’t see any reason why the school system would turn around and flaunt the law… We would lose that battle and it would cost the taxpayers in Harford County money”. He concluded, “I hope for Harford County this issue is done”, adding that anyone who had concerns about the law could go to their elected representatives and try to get the law changed.