Victory for California School District's Diversity Education

September 4, 2003 12:00 am

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Group Walks Away After Court Allows Theater Company and Parents To Join Lawsuit


SAN FRANCISCO – Following intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union, parents and students who sued the Novato School District over a diversity education program because of its message of tolerance for lesbian and gay people agreed to dismiss the lawsuit today, ending nearly two years of litigation. The lawsuit, Citizens for Parental Rights v. Novato Unified School District, attacked the Novato school district for presenting a play entitled Cootie Shots: Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry in two elementary schools.

“”This outcome is a great victory for parents and students in Novato and for anyone concerned about fostering tolerance in their community,”” said Julia Harumi Mass, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “”The plaintiffs’ decision to walk away at this stage of the case shows that their claims were baseless. It shows that schools have the authority to require attendance at tolerance-building and diversity education programs that include teaching tolerance for lesbian and gay students.””

The play, which was performed by the educational theater company Fringe Benefits, tackles stereotypes and discrimination in an age-appropriate way through short plays, songs, and poems. Students, parents, and educators in over a hundred schools throughout California and other states have enthusiastically received Cootie Shots.

The lawsuit, which was touted in a January 31, 2002 press release by the right wing Pacific Justice Institute as the “”first in a major litigation campaign,”” tried to claim that parents had a right to prevent their children from watching the play, which advocates for teaching tolerance for gay people, because it constituted “”sex education.”” They also claimed that showing the play to their children violated their religious freedoms.

“”Teaching tolerance for lesbian and gay students has nothing to do sex education or religious freedom,”” said Tamara Lange, a staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “”This lawsuit was a mean-spirited and vicious attack on lesbian and gay people that aimed to destroy an outstanding tool for teaching tolerance for all students.””

United for Safe Schools Novato and Fringe Benefits decided to intervene and help the school district defend the lawsuit and its right to educate children about the values of diversity and acceptance. The ACLU of Northern California, ACLU of Southern California, ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights represented the groups in their bid to join in on the lawsuit. On July 11, the U.S. District Court of Northern California granted a motion allowing the theatre company and the parent group to intervene as defendants in the case.

“”For parents, students, and community members, dismissal of this case is a real victory,”” said Annan Paterson, co-chair of United for Safe Schools Novato. “”USSN has consistently supported the District’s proactive efforts, such as the Cootie Shots presentation, to increase respect and safety on our campuses. It’s a shame the plaintiffs in this case, a small group of parents, tried to stop this important work. In reality, our community supports diversity education and we will continue to move forward for all children.””

Fringe Benefits Artistic Director Norma Bowles added, “”Having based Cootie Shots on studies by the National Educational Association and the American Psychological Association, we already knew that it is an important, age-appropriate program for addressing diversity and discrimination issues with young children. Today’s victory confirms that school districts need not fear litigation in response to using this valuable educational tool.””

“”This is a tremendous victory for schools and students,”” said Courtney Joslin, a staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “”This result affirms the ability of schools to use anti-bias and diversity education to ensure that schools are safe for all students, including lesbian and gay students.””

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