ACLU and National Center for Lesbian Rights Help CA School District Fight Lawsuit Over Theater Program Promoting Diversity

June 2, 2003 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union and a gay rights organization today filed a motion to intervene in an existing lawsuit on behalf of a local parents group and a children’s theater company who support a local school district that has come under fire for providing diversity education through the theater arts.

“The school district did not violate anyone’s rights,” said Julia Harumi Mass, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “In fact, providing diversity education is an important way to protect students from discrimination and harassment. In a state as diverse as California, these programs are urgently needed to make our schools safe and fair for all students.”

The lawsuit, Citizens for Parental Rights v. Novato Unified School District, was filed earlier this year against school board officials in Novato, a town of approximately 50,000 located 30 miles north of San Francisco. The ACLU’s affiliate offices in northern and southern California, its national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are representing United for Safe Schools Novato, a local coalition of parents, students and organizations concerned with equality, and Fringe Benefits, a Los Angeles-based children’s theater company whose production of a play on tolerance has been used by the school board as part of it’s diversity curriculum.

According to the ACLU, the lawsuit was filed against the Novato school district for presenting the theater company’s show in two elementary schools. The show, “”Cootie Shots: Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry,”” is a series of plays, poems and songs illustrating the hurtful effects of name-calling and strategies for coping with intolerance in a school setting. In one entertaining twist on a traditional fairy tale, a tomboy encounters Rapunzel in her tower and persuades her to play outside instead of waiting for her prince.

“As community members, we know that diversity education which represents all parts of our community is the best prevention against teasing, bullying and hate behavior,” said Annan Paterson, co-chair of United for Safe Schools Novato. “We applaud the efforts of our school district to provide programs such as ‘Cootie Shots’ and we want these educational opportunities to continue.”

The ACLU pointed out that students, parents, and educators throughout California and in other states have enthusiastically received the Cootie Shots show, but a small group of Novato parents objected to the production, claiming that they had a right to prevent their children from seeing it. Representatives from United for Safe Schools Novato and Fringe Benefits said their organizations decided to intervene in order to lend support and assist the school district in defending its right to educate children about the values of diversity and acceptance.

“As advocates for lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender individuals, the National Center for Lesbian Rights strongly supports the Novato school district’s efforts to increase tolerance on campus through creative programs like ‘Cootie Shots,'” said Courtney Joslin, a staff attorney with the NCLR.

The NCLR is the only national public interest law center dedicated to achieving full civil and human rights for all lesbians through a program of litigation, public policy, advocacy, community education, and free legal advice and counseling

“Schools have an obligation to try to prevent harassment and promote diversity,” said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney with the national ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “We are concerned that this type of litigation will discourage schools from using valuable educational tools to protect kids in the future.”

The case is currently pending in United States District Court for the Northern District of California. A copy of the ACLU motion is available online at

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