California School Bans Sixth Grader’s Presentation on Harvey Milk

May 20, 2009

Faces Possible ACLU Lawsuit For Violation Of State Education Code

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

RAMONA, CA – Wrongly citing a school policy on sex education, a California school illegally censored a sixth grader’s classroom presentation about Harvey Milk earlier this month. According to a demand letter sent by the American Civil Liberties Union to the Ramona Unified School District today, the school violated Natalie Jones’s free speech rights when it refused to allow her to give the presentation in class. Instead, the school improperly required classmates to get parental permission to see the presentation during a lunch recess.

“This whole thing is unbelievable – first my daughter got called into the principal’s office as if she were in some kind of trouble, and then they treated her presentation like it was something icky,” said Bonnie Jones, mother of the Mt. Woodson Elementary School student. “Harvey Milk was an elected official in this state and an important person in history. To say my daughter’s presentation is ‘sex education’ because Harvey Milk happened to be gay is completely wrong.”

The assignment, part of an independent research project class, was originally to prepare a written report on any topic. Natalie Jones, who was inspired to write about Harvey Milk after watching Sean Penn win an Academy Award for portraying him, got a score of 49 out of a possible 50 points on the written report. Students were then told to make PowerPoint presentations about their reports, which they would show to other students in the class. The day before Natalie was to give her 12-page presentation she was called into the principal’s office and told she couldn’t do so.

When Bonnie Jones spoke with the superintendent about the presentation, he said Natalie couldn’t give her presentation because of a district board policy on “Family Life/Sex Education.” A few days later, the school sent letters to parents of students in the class, explaining that her presentation would be held during a lunch recess on May 8, and that students could only attend if they had parental permission.

“The principal and superintendent grossly misinterpreted school policy. They illegally censored student speech protected by the First Amendment and the California Education Code,” said David Blair-Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Writing or talking about a gay historical figure who advocated for equal rights for LGBT Californians is in no way the same thing as talking about sex, and school officials should not pretend otherwise.”

The Ramona Unified School District policy on “Family Life/Sex Education” reads in part:

“(P)arents/guardians shall be notified in writing about any instruction in which human reproductive organs and their functions, processes, or sexually transmitted diseases are described, illustrated, or discussed. In addition, before any instruction on family life, human sexuality, AIDS or sexually transmitted diseases is given, the parent/guardian shall be provided with written notice explaining that the instruction will be given…”

“Schools that act as if any mention of the existence of gay people is something too controversial or ‘sensitive’ to discuss are doing a disservice to their students,” said Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national LGBT Project. “This school completely overstepped its bounds in trying to silence Natalie Jones by shunting her presentation off to a lunch recess time and misusing a school policy to justify requiring parental permission to see it.”

In today’s letter, the ACLU is demanding that the school:

  • Apologize in writing to Natalie Jones and send a letter about that apology to all the parents who were sent the principal’s letter about the presentation
  • Give Natalie Jones an opportunity to give her presentation to all the other members of her independent research project class
  • Clarify in writing that the parental notification and permission portion of the “Family Life/Sex Education” policy only applies to the curricula identified as “course content” for “Family Life/Sex Education instruction”

The ACLU is giving the district five days to respond or it may file a lawsuit on Bonnie and Natalie Jones’s behalf.

Harvey Milk, one of Time Magazine’s “Time 100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century” in 1999, has been the subject of several books, an opera, a documentary film that won the 1984 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, and a feature film released last year that won two Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor. Milk’s birthday, the subject of a bill pending in the California legislature that would make it a state holiday, is this Friday.

For additional information, including copies of Natalie Jones’s presentation on Harvey Milk, the school’s letter to parents, and the Ramona U.S.D. “Family Life/Sex Education” policy, visit /Milk.

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