The showdown at San Leandro High

A battle between parents and gay-rights advocates may be a preview of the country's next great culture war.

Published June 1, 1998 7:47PM (EDT)

It was shortly after 3 p.m. on a balmy afternoon in early September 1997, and school had just let out at San Leandro High, a suburban
public school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Teacher Bob Volpa was in his second-floor computer lab when he heard a commotion outside. "I looked out the window to see what was going on," he recalled, "and there were these two girls -- both students here -- making out with one another right in front of the school. I mean, they were really going at it hot and heavy." According to Volpa, the girls were "groping each other's breasts and crotches," and had attracted a crowd "of maybe 50 other students," some of whom "were heckling and jeering." The business education teacher said he watched in stunned disbelief as the girls "increased their sexual exhibition in response to the crowd," then went downstairs to break up the demonstration. Volpa escorted the girls to the school's administrative offices, intending to turn them over to one of the assistant principals in charge of discipline, but none were in. So he took their names and told them they'd be referred for disciplinary action.

But instead of punishing the two 10th graders, Assistant Principal Robert Williams reprimanded the teacher. In a memo to be placed in Volpa's employment file, Williams lectured Volpa about his duty to "assist in creating a climate which recognizes the worth and dignity of each individual," and criticized him for failing to stop the "heckling, jeering, and name-calling directed toward" the amorous couple. Williams also characterized Volpa's disapproval of the girls' conduct as "improper" and "negligent," and concluded it "may possibly have contributed to an unsafe learning environment."

The censure of Volpa outraged many of his tenured faculty peers. In furtive conversations in the teachers' lunch room they recalled the swift suspensions meted out to a boy and girl caught engaging in oral sex behind one of the school buildings the previous year. Teachers wondered if Leigh Akins, their new principal, was signaling a hands-off policy toward gay kids who similarly misbehave.

Thus began a controversy over gay rights that has plunged San Leandro's only high school -- already troubled by racial tensions and low achievement scores -- into a state approaching chaos, and threatens to divide this racially mixed, culturally pluralistic blue-collar community into warring camps.

I've spent considerable time at San Leandro High as a substitute teacher the past two years, which has allowed me to observe the evolution of this conflict at close range and get to know the protagonists. I chose to write about it (a decision that cost me my job at the high school) for a complex number of reasons.

As a lifelong liberal I sympathize with homosexuals who aspire to liberate themselves from ancient prejudices. But as an educational insider I have seen how politicizing the personal can polarize a campus and disrupt the learning process.

As a small "d" democrat who holds civil discourse and the willingness to compromise to be sacred, I found the tactics of gay rights advocates at the high school not only offensive but dangerously counterproductive. They have presumed the right to reshape the values of the nation's school children, and their sneering contempt toward parents who object risks a backlash that could set the cause of gay liberation back for decades.

Finally, as a veteran journalist, I was frankly appalled by the local media's failure to report this story fairly and accurately, or perceive its larger significance. The trouble at San Leandro High is not, as most have portrayed it, a simple case of knuckle-headed homophobes attacking enlightened educators for attempting to "teach tolerance." It is a complex collision between the legitimate interests of gays and lesbians yearning to be free, and those of parents anxious about their kids' futures and concerned about what they are learning -- and failing to learn -- in the classroom.

Nor is San Leandro the only community being convulsed by a gay rights controversy. Strikingly similar conflicts have erupted elsewhere this year, most notably in Nevada, Michigan and Utah. The driving force behind all of them has been the Gay/Lesbian/Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a New York-based activist organization formed five years ago to advocate on behalf of homosexual teachers and students.

Today GLSEN claims more than 7,500 members in some 82 chapters nationwide, and is fielding a strategy to revolutionize America's attitudes and policies toward homosexuality by making public schools -- because they transmit the common values that bind us together as a society -- ground zero in the struggle for gay rights.

"Gays are tired of riding in the back of the bus," declares Kate Frankfurt, GLSEN's director of advocacy and public policy. "The issue (of gay rights) is now being joined, and the schools are a very important battleground." When future generations of schoolchildren stand to recite the "Pledge of Allegiance," GLSEN is determined that homosexuals and bisexuals will henceforth be included in America's promise of "liberty and justice for all."

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What exactly happened between the two girls is disputed. Both have repeatedly insisted they had done nothing offensive or improper. Neither would be interviewed for this article, but one of the 15-year-olds told a Berkeley weekly, the East Bay Express, they were merely "giving each other a peck on the lips, on the cheek," although she admitted that "a couple times we French-kissed." The girl also denied that the couple fondled one another. "It may have looked like she had her hand on my butt," she averred, but she insisted the other girl's hands were "on my waist."

Others, however, saw it differently. "I was standing in front of the school with some friends when two girls started kissing and feeling on each other in a very sexual way," reported a student who beheld from just a few feet away the same erotic encounter Volpa told of seeing from his classroom window. The 11th grader described the conduct she observed as "totally inappropriate to do at school, even for a boy and girl," and said she was "totally grossed out" by the display.

The two girls were twice more accused of committing sexual indecencies -- once in the girl's lavatory at school and again in a public restroom at an off-campus football game. In the first episode, which allegedly occurred several days after the public kissing incident, chief custodian Lucy Bignone was sent to investigate a student's complaint about the same couple "making out" in the girl's restroom at school. "One was sitting on the toilet, the other was between her legs with her head in the first girl's lap," Bignone told me. When I asked whether they were engaging in sex, Bignone reacted to the question with obvious embarrassment. "I don't know what they were doing," she replied. "But whatever it was, I told 'em they couldn't do it in the bathroom, and to get out." In the second episode, the mother of a football player told the team's coach that the girls had been seen misbehaving in a restroom. The coach confirmed that the mother had told him that, but said that when he asked the woman if she would talk to me about the incident, she refused. "She doesn't want to get involved," he said. Whether these incidents were reported to the administration is unclear; in any case, no further action was taken against the students.

Meanwhile, other events threw gasoline on the fire. October had been designated as Gay History Month at the high school, and some teachers -- most of them newly hired that fall -- sported bright pink, triangular-shaped pins declaring, "Someone You Love Is Gay Or Lesbian." Then one of the faculty novices, who asked that her name not be used, decided to "come out" to her 9th grade science class. According to several of her students, she declared herself a lesbian and spent much of a class period lauding the accomplishments of lesbians and gays throughout the ages. Science department chair Judy Larson told me she supported the teacher's "coming out" to her students, even though the young instructor failed to consult with her beforehand. She was pursuing a valid educational objective by dispelling negative stereotypes about homosexuals, according to Larson, and fostering a positive role model for youngsters struggling to come to terms with their own budding homosexuality.

But when some of the her students related what they had heard in class to their parents, several complained to the administration. The teacher's supporters defended her on equity grounds. Heterosexual teachers sometimes talk about their spouses or children and even teach classes in the obvious late stages of pregnancy, they said: Isn't that advertising one's "lifestyle" and sexual orientation? But her detractors scoffed at the suggestion that mentioning a wife or husband, being pregnant in class or passing around baby pictures was analogous to making value-laden pronouncements about homosexuality before a captive audience.

Then a hometown newspaper, the San Leandro Times, published a letter from John Cambra, the father of a 15-year-old boy who attends the high school, describing the sexual behavior attributed to the lesbian students and protesting the school's censure of the teacher who tried to reprimand them. Cambra also wrote that he was "appalled to discover the existence of a homosexual club" operating on campus. He was referring to the Gay/Straight Alliance, an extracurricular club founded four years ago by Terry Minton, an openly gay drama teacher, and English teacher Karl Debro, who is heterosexual. "Enough is enough!" Cambra declared in his letter. "This type of conduct will not be tolerated and the irresponsible teachers and administrators that have supported it need to be fired." He concluded by inviting concerned parents to a meeting.

Principal Leigh Akins responded a week later with her own letter to the Times, claiming that "no students were engaged in sexual activities" at the high school. "Overt public displays of affection by any student are considered inappropriate," she added, "and are dealt with on an individual basis."
Akins also claimed that "No teacher has received a letter of reprimand regarding students showing affection in front of the school." Yet Volpa has provided me with a copy of the memo he received from Bob Williams, which is entitled "Reprimand" and bears the assistant principal's signature. According to Volpa, the memo was withdrawn after he complained to a school board member and the local teachers union threatened to file a grievance. Williams has failed to respond to requests for his comment on the matter.

"We do have a Gay/Straight Alliance on campus," Akins acknowledged in her letter to the Times, "and its purpose is to promote safety and equality for all students and staff. It is not an advocacy group." Yet the G/SA's advocacy role is well known at the high school, and readily acknowledged by gay activists. "Gay/Straight Alliances are independent groups that grew out of GLSEN," acknowledges the organization's chief advocate, Kate Frankfurt. The first such alliance was formed at the Concord Academy in Massachusetts, by GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings. "They're not little armies," Frankfurt says, "but when controversies arise, they're primed to respond." GLSEN board member Grant Peterson estimates there are between 19 and 24 G/SA chapters in high schools scattered throughout the East Bay. "We're way ahead of most of the country," he boasts. (Neither he nor anyone else seems to know how many high school students in the Bay Area are G/SA members, or how many at San Leandro High have joined the organization.)

The disingenuousness of Principal Akins' response to parental anxieties only fueled the controversy. And if the GSA's role as an advocate had somehow escaped Akins' notice, it was about to be made embarrassingly obvious to her.

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A week following publication of John Cambra's letter to the Times, some 30 San Leandro citizens -- most of them parents -- gathered at the home of Dennis and Joanna Price. He is a local businessman, she a science teacher at San Leandro High. The Prices are devout Mormons and the parents of six children, one of whom, their oldest boy, Scott, is a student at the high school.
Jeff Lanet, a parent and principal organizer of the November 12 meeting, put the group's concerns into perspective by initially focusing on the high school's dismal academic standing. "The reason, we're told, is ours," he observed. "We speak too many languages, we have too much diversity here in San Leandro. Well, I think that's a bunch of bunk." The reason many of their kids weren't doing well in school, Lanet suggested, "is that teachers are taking up class time to discuss things like accepting homosexuality."

Many of those who crowded into the Prices' modest living room that evening were religious conservatives who harbor views that gay rights advocates condemn as homophobic. Several I talked with believed that there is an ethic of promiscuity at the heart of gay life, and didn't want teachers presenting homosexuality to their kids as a healthy and respectable alternative to monogamous heterosexuality, which they consider superior if not divinely ordained. "My daughter has decided it's OK to be bisexual," growled a woman in a wheelchair. "This has got to stop!"

Yet the meeting at the Prices' was no convocation of hatemongers. Several went out of their way to make it clear they would have no part of an anti-gay witch hunt. Jeff Lanet, whose daughter Elizabeth is an 11th-grade honor student at SLHS, told the group that while he considered homosexuality "wrong," he wasn't seeking to impose his personal moral code on the schools. "But I don't want [the view that homosexuality is acceptable] pushed on my kids, any more than I want religions I disagree with pushed on them," he explained. "Let them teach our kids to read, write and think, and leave the values to the parents."

"They keep trying to make this a hate issue," declared parent Dana Johnson, referring to the G/SA. "We're not anti-gay, we're pro-education."

"I'm in favor of the Gay/Straight Alliance as a club," added Jim Godkin, whose son Jason is a student at the high school. "I agree with them; no group at school should be harassed. But I don't want teachers taking precious class time to preach to my kids about sex, religion or whatever, and I don't want young girls having sex in the bathrooms. I also don't go along with all of this pontificating about minority groups. It's divisive." The parents concluded their meeting by forming an organization and choosing a name they hoped would emphasize their overriding concern and dispel any notion that they were anti-gay: Parents Interested in Public Education, or PIPE.

I showed up for work at the high school early the next morning to find the staff abuzz with wildly distorted accounts of PIPE and its aims. Misinformation, compounded and amplified as it passed from lip to lip, soon had the parents group taking on the sinister aspect of some right-wing cabal bent on crushing academic freedom, purging homosexuals and making life miserable for other minorities. Most students I talked to seemed indifferent to the controversy, until word spread that all extracurricular activities would shortly be banned so school officials could rid the campus of the G/SA without violating the state education code or antidiscrimination laws. "If that goes down it's gonna be a big-ass problem, 'cause I'm not gonna tolerate that," I overheard a 12th-grader in one of my classes remark to the girl next to her. "Who cares who they have sex with," she added, "as long as they don't do it in your bed and in your face." "But if they have sex in the bathroom, that's a different story," her friend replied.

The G/SA, meanwhile, flew into action. Members papered the school with alarmist broadsides warning about "The anti-gay people" whose "anti-gay agenda" was being presented at the upcoming school board meeting. One depicted a bomb with a lit fuse and warned ominously: "BE THERE ... or be next." Another G/SA flyer, featuring the triangle symbolizing gay pride in the bull's-eye of a target, told of the meeting "at Joanna Price's house ... to discuss the anti-gay agenda" allegedly concocted there, and accusing PIPE of "calling for the firing of SLHS faculty members and administrators." It concluded with an urgent call to action: "IT IS IMPORTANT THAT WE MEET PRIOR TO THIS BOARD MEETING."

When a fellow teacher showed Joanna Price the flyer with her name on it, "I was delighted," she recalls. "Minton had finally showed his hand. I knew he was spreading rumors that I was spearheading a move to dismantle all clubs, get Akins fired and promote hatred toward gay teachers and students. But this time he publicly attacked me, and now I could do something about it. Now I could fight back."

I stopped by Akins' office that afternoon, asked for an interview for an article I was writing on the controversy, and showed her the G/SA flyer implying that Price was leading an anti-gay conspiracy. "I didn't know about or authorize it, and would never have approved such a thing," said the principal. She then proceeded to accuse the complaining parents of engaging in "hate-motivated behavior," but when asked for specifics admitted, "I don't have any facts; I haven't talked to any members of PIPE." Akins cut the interview short at that point, promising to resume it at a later time. But when I approached her again a day or two later the principal told me she had "nothing further to say on the matter." Shortly thereafter, and at Akins' instigation, I was dropped from the district's substitute teaching roster.

A capacity crowd of some 235 people packed the November 18 meeting of the San Leandro Unified School District board of trustees. A handful of PIPE members showed up to speak, but they were vastly outnumbered by gay rights partisans recruited from all over the Bay Area. "How we frame the issue of homosexuality is vital to our future as a community," warned Andrew Ward, son of the town's former police chief and father of two elementary schoolchildren in the district. He then told a disturbing tale of having been seduced as a teenager by a male drama teacher at San Leandro High (not Minton), and spending a year of his adolescence as the man's paid sex toy. "That experience had a profound effect on my relationship with other people," Ward told his rapt audience, "and I can't begin to describe the pain I went through during those early years." The young father urged the board to "realize that [teenagers] are at a young and impressionable age, too young to make decisions for themselves" about sexual behavior or orientation. "I don't want to be characterized as a bigot," he added, "but school is not the place to advance" the cause of gay rights, which Ward termed, "a social phenomenon unique to our age."

The stunned audience erupted in wild applause and cheering, prompting board member Bill Stephens to warn against further demonstrations. But the two or three other PIPE members who rose to speak were loudly laughed at and jeered by G/SA partisans. Jeff Lanet noted that San Leandro High's achievement test scores were 25 points below the state average, relegating it to "the bottom one-third of high schools nationally." He attributed the problem to the school's "pushing homosexual issues instead of academic excellence." The proceedings were quickly dominated, however, by some 25 other speakers who demanded that San Leandro's schools be made "safe" for gays and lesbians, and attacked members of PIPE as ignorant and bigoted. A check of the identity cards they were required to fill out indicated that most were from outside the district.

"As a young lesbian I was harassed during the 1970s," recalled Rhea Williamson, a professor of civil engineering at San Jose State University. "Today we're out and we're proud," she declared, "and part of what I'm paid to do as a teacher is provide guidance and support" to gay students. "Homosexuality is not some New Age sort of thing," Williamson reminded everyone, but the natural inclination of a large segment of humanity in all times and places. "The people you are hearing from have not personally experienced racism or homophobia," G/SA leader Karl Debro asserted. "We've got to do something about the harassment of gay and lesbian kids," he insisted. "This isn't about sex, it's about sexual identity."

"I don't have any prejudice against straight people, I just wish they'd act gay in public," joked Terry Minton as he stepped to the microphone. But he soon turned truculent. "There's an agenda being pushed here," the G/SA leader charged, "a hate agenda, an ignorance agenda." He demanded that school authorities "recognize the hate and do something about it." GLSEN board member Grant Peterson said that "Across the nation, we are organizing to make this the last generation that will be taught the lessons of hatred and intolerance while in school."

San Leandro school officials sat through the long evening with glazed eyes and stone faces. Afterward, school board president Stephens would say only that the controversy reflected "a clash of values" between "well-meaning people" who might be able to resolve their differences, if only they'd sit down and talk civilly to one another.

When I asked Minton if he would be willing to meet with the leaders of PIPE, he responded angrily, "Why should I talk to people who are trying to hurt me and these kids? They're no different than the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan." He then refused to answer any more of my questions and has since spurned several requests for an interview, accusing me of bias because I "talked to the other side."

But for Minton, Price and the city of San Leandro, the battle was only beginning.

This is the first of two articles.

( Select this link for
Part Two )

By Ira Eisenberg

Ira Eisenberg is a teacher and veteran Bay Area journalist.

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