Class warfare

In the second of two articles, a teacher who was on the front lines describes how a California high school became a battleground in the struggle over what America's students should be taught about homosexuality.

Published June 2, 1998 8:33AM (EDT)

Gay rights advocates portray San Leandro as a town dominated by right-wing homophobes and its high school a hotbed of gay-bashing. But to gain some perspective on such charges, one must get to know the community and spend some time at San Leandro High.

San Leandro is a blue-collar town in the throes of a painful transition. Located on the industrial east shore of San Francisco Bay just south of Oakland, San Leandro boomed with defense production during World War II and basked in post-war prosperity through the '50s and '60s. Then the factories and warehouses began closing or moving away, reducing the region to a rust belt. San Leandro's working-class, white ethnic majority -- many of them descendants of Portuguese farmers and fishermen who first settled this place early in the century -- have seen their living standards decline and their security evaporate over the past three decades. Some have moved away, and those who remain often feel threatened by the growing number of immigrants and people of color moving into their neighborhoods, schools, churches and even their jobs. Seven years ago, some black students from San Leandro High had a run-in with local police at a nearby strip mall and rampaged for hours through the school. Teachers who witnessed the event tell me it was the work of "a few well-known thugs from Oakland." But African-American political leaders and others blamed it on pent-up rage at white hostility. Deservedly or not, San Leandro acquired the reputation as a community of intolerant rednecks.

Yet San Leandro today is one of the most racially mixed, culturally diverse and socially integrated communities in the Bay Area. Despite its changing demographics, the town also has retained its essential character -- politically liberal (some 80 percent of voters are registered Democrats) but socially conservative. Life for most citizens here still revolves around work, family, church and community. And the flap over gay rights at San Leandro High has caused a growing number -- newcomers and old-timers alike, white and black -- to feel betrayed by a public school system that can't seem to educate their kids yet appears intent on disabusing them of values these people hold dear.

Viewed from a distance, San Leandro High appears sturdy and well-maintained, a model American high school. But closer inspection reveals a different picture: jammed hallways, battered lockers, peeling paint, decrepit furniture, overcrowded classrooms, textbooks in short supply and woefully out of date, computers rarely available in classrooms and the mingling odors of cafeteria grease, industrial strength disinfectant, backed-up toilets and unwashed gym clothes. Built a half-century ago to hold less than 1,000 students, the archaic structure now must accommodate nearly twice that number. This is the town's only high school; there used to be two others, but they were sold off to developers in the 1970s and '80s, when families were mostly leaving San Leandro, and have long since been bulldozed out of existence. The halls of San Leandro High are so crowded these days that it has become a challenge to get from one class to another on time, and the din is oppressive. More than once, while trapped in a jammed stairwell, a troubling thought crossed my mind; what if an earthquake or fire struck right now? Or some juvenile jerk suddenly exploded a cherry bomb in our midst?

On the walls of the attendance office, photographs are displayed of graduating classes going back several generations -- a virtual triptych of the demographic changes the school has gone through. Panning from past to present, one can see the faces change from mostly white to mostly black and brown. Today, two out of three San Leandro High students are African-American, Hispanic or Asian. Many are products of Oakland's notoriously dysfunctional school system, a growing number speak little or no English and test scores have plunged in recent years. The campus seems relatively free of gangs and drugs, but racial and ethnic tensions are palpable and self-conscious efforts to "celebrate diversity" only aggravate the problem. I've heard Hispanics mutter about African-Americans getting most of the attention, African-Americans grousing about being honored for only one month while gays are celebrated for two and kids of Portuguese heritage voicing umbrage at getting no special recognition. Only Asians appear content to go their way largely unnoticed.

Members of the Gay/Straight Alliance on campus insist gay and lesbian students and teachers are in constant fear for their safety at school, but hard evidence to support this claim is scarce. The ninth-grade teacher who came out told local newspaper reporters and Principal Aikens that she had been harassed by students and even threatened with death after telling her class she was a lesbian. But according to senior district administrators, she never sought disciplinary action against any student, and local police say she filed no formal complaint of a death threat with them. The two girls whose public displays of mutual affection caused such a stir claim students insulted and "threw things" at them in the halls, but no culprits were identified.

There is, of course, ample reason to be concerned about the welfare of homosexual youth. Gay teenagers are dramatically more at risk than others for drug abuse, academic failure, physical violence, psychological disorder and suicide as a consequence of being "shamed into invisibility, silence and despair," to borrow a phrase from the G/SA's mission statement on file with the San Leandro Unified School District. But the G/SA has failed to document any cases of gays or lesbians being threatened, harassed or assaulted at San Leandro High. I taught there nearly every day that school was in session last year, including summer school, and saw any number of kids who were clearly (and apparently comfortably) "out" -- and no one seemed nonplused by the fact.

That is not to say that students at SLHS are typically polite and respectful with one another. Street culture -- some of it authentic but most of it emulated -- prevails there. Even many middle-class kids sport "baggies" and $150 gym shoes, and trade the vilest insults with one another. They call it "acting ghetto," but rarely is any evil intent involved. There is also a certain rough democracy about their offensiveness; hardly a group or difference is spared. "Every day I walk down these halls and every day I hear a woman being called a 'slut' or 'whore' and a man being called a 'dog'," student Tamika Tolliver ruefully observed in the November issue of the school newspaper. Teenagers commonly apply the term "gay" pejoratively to anything or anyone they don't like or consider dumb, and "faggot" still echoes through the halls of San Leandro High, as it does in most high schools, but not nearly as often as "nigger." If homosexuals are getting their fair share of verbal abuse, it's not because they are being singled out.

I've never seen or heard of anyone at San Leandro High getting beaten up for being gay or lesbian, and campus supervisors I've talked to say they haven't either. The two fistfights that have broken out in classes of mine have both involved (apparently) heterosexual girls. A zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech has long been in force at the high school, and teachers are quick to write up students whom they observe denigrating another's race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

The real issue at San Leandro High is not safety but normative values and their place in the classroom. Gay activists see the public schools as a bully pulpit from which to exorcise the evil of homophobia from the souls of the young. But people who see homosexuality as a sin, a sickness or an unhealthy lifestyle worry that activist teachers may be imposing misguided values on their children -- and point to the case of English teacher and G/SA leader Karl Debro. "I've been outspoken on gay and racial issues," says Debro, one of just two African-American males remaining on the SLHS teaching staff. "A black guy who speaks out on these issues scares a lot of folks in this community." Debro has been a vocal exponent of the view -- embraced as dogma by the G/SA and Gay/Lesbian/Straight Education Network -- that the quest for gay rights is as legally valid and morally compelling as the historic black struggle for civil rights.

It is a notion some other African-Americans have considerable trouble with. Shortly before Thanksgiving, a popular black physical education teacher, Matt Walker, submitted his resignation. "I quit because I just couldn't deal with the school promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle," the Pentecostal Christian said. "I don't hold a grudge against anyone. I just couldn't continue working under those conditions." Walker was promptly hired by the Oakland Unified School District, and now teaches at Fremont High. "They didn't hurt me," he observed, "but they sure hurt those kids." San Leandro High "is so divided," according to Walker, "and they kept trying to figure out what side I was on. Karl Debro would throw race into the issue, like if you didn't go along with homosexuality it was no different than racism, and I told him the two things just don't equal out in my mind."

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G/SA's persistent characterization of their religious, family-oriented critics as ignorant bigots deeply offended the dominant sensibilities of this community. "They're a bunch of snotty elitists who have contempt for working families and their values," says Parents Interested in Public Education member Jim Godkin. But the persistent accusations of bigotry caused potential supporters to avoid open association with PIPE. When the group held a public meeting at the town's main library early in December, the few sympathizers who showed up found themselves surrounded by a hostile crowd of G/SA faithful. And when the organization's leaders passed around a petition calling on school authorities to concentrate on academics and keep "lifestyle issues" out of the classroom, sparks began to fly. GS/A co-founder Terry Minton loudly denounced the petition as "intentionally ambiguous in order to hide your bigotry and hate-based agenda," and soon became embroiled in an exchange of insults with Dennis Price. Finally, an African-American teenager sitting quietly near the back of the auditorium rose to her feet.

"You guys are supposed to be the adults and we're supposed to be the children, and look how you're acting," scolded Le Jon Johnson, startling the two flushed white men into speechlessness. "What are you trying to teach us?" she demanded. When Minton attempted to silence her, Johnson cut him short. "You're going to have to suspend me to shut me up," the young woman shot back, jaw set and eyes blazing. "We didn't come here to point fingers at anybody," she continued, turning to Price, "but we've been called names and you've been called names, and to what purpose?"

There then followed the only civil exchange known to have taken place between the bitterly contending factions. "The community is really frustrated," Joanna Price told Terry Minton. "When parents' concerns are treated with contempt by teachers there's something radically wrong, and parents are coming to the point where they just won't take it anymore." Her voice was calm, and the group of students and teachers who accompanied Minton pressed forward to listen. "When people strongly disagree, a spirit of compromise is basically where you end up -- that's the American system," Price continued. "We need to find a way to agree to disagree, and part of finding that common ground is to listen to one another without making accusations. This conflict for conflict's sake is nothing but destructive, and in the end the majority will get what it wants anyway."

"But the majority can't just take the minority's rights away," Minton replied, his tone more beseeching now than pugnacious. "The lifestyle choice you're targeting is a gay one, and your words are intentionally misleading and dishonest. In your zeal to silence issues you personally, philosophically and religiously disagree with, you want to put constraints on my ability to deal with issues that relate to a kid's ability to learn and grow." An intense but respectful debate between the two continued for perhaps an hour, with neither party raising their voice, resorting to insults or giving ground. "This is the most opportunity I've had to actually discuss these issues with you," Dennis Price declared in frank amazement. It was an epiphany others in the room clearly shared.

In the end, however, Minton grew belligerent, accusing Joanna Price of trying to drive him out of San Leandro High and predicting dire consequences for gay students "if there aren't people like me around" to protect them. "But go ahead, have at me," Minton challenged. "I love persecution. I'm tough. I can take it."

After that encounter, two parallel battles raged unabated -- one in full view of the public and the other behind the scenes. G/SA partisans regularly appeared at school board meetings to demand that homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals be declared a protected minority and "diversity training" be implemented to sensitize teachers to the special needs of this "at-risk population." The parents of PIPE for the most part stayed away from these meetings. "We're not about to get into a hissing contest with those people," said Dennis Price. But they were intensely busy behind the scenes, hounding school board members with letters and telephone calls and filing official complaints.

Meanwhile, the drama involving the principal players moved toward a climax. After talking to her union representative and consulting with a private attorney regarding the laws of defamation, Joanna Price took the G/SA flyer accusing her of being part of an "anti-gay agenda" directly to district school superintendent, Tom Himmelberg. "I feel unsafe," she told him, and refused to return to the classroom until Minton and the G/SA quit vilifying her. "I want my good name back," she demanded. There followed a series of intense, often-heated "mediation" sessions in Himmelberg's office between Price, Minton and principal Leigh Akins. According to Price, they ended with Minton admitting he produced the offending flyer, and Akins penning a mea culpa apologizing to Price for the "personal attacks," admitting that she "should have addressed this earlier" and warning staff and faculty that such things "cannot happen again to Joanna or anyone else."

A stylish and sophisticated former physical education teacher with a nearly new Mercedes sports coupe bearing a personalized license plate that reads "CUTE," Akins was popular with the gaggle of fledgling teachers she hired this school year, but not highly regarded by many tenured faculty at San Leandro High. "I can't understand Leigh," confided one veteran social science instructor. "She's either incredibly stupid or has no control over her people. Our biggest problem is Terry Minton, and Leigh's letting him run the school."

"I sympathize with what they're trying to accomplish," one respected academic department head told me, referring to the G/SA. "But the essence of democracy is tolerance and compromise. The G/SA crowd fancy themselves revolutionaries, and revolutionaries are intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them."

"We can't continue this way much longer," observed an esteemed math teacher. "The school board can't allow Terry and the G/SA to continue disrupting the high school. I think we'll see some changes."

Absent a systematic poll, and judging from my own conversations with staff members at the high school last year, I am convinced that the views quoted above speak for a substantial number of San Leandro High's 80 teachers -- and probably most of those with experience and tenure. (That none of Akins' critics were willing to be identified should surprise no one familiar with the culture of public school teachers. Tenure provides slim protection against administrative retaliation, and for all their breast-beating about freedom of speech, teachers are notoriously reluctant to express opinions on controversial issues, let alone criticize their superiors.)

In fact, changes have come to pass at San Leandro High. The two lesbian students transferred out of San Leandro High, claiming harassment by fellow students. They plan to complete their high school education in an independent studies program administered by the district office. Superintendent Himmelberg, who conducted his own discreet investigation, concluded that the girls had in fact engaged in inappropriate "sexual behavior" at school and "should have been disciplined for it at the time."

Following a recent series of closed-door meetings with the superintendent regarding parental complains lodged against her, principal Leigh Akins resigned to become principal of Tamalpais High School, across the Bay in tony Mill Valley.

Minton has shaved his head, lowered his profile and, according to informed faculty, will not be returning to San Leandro High in September. Minton declined to confirm or deny the rumor.

The lesbian teacher who "came out" to her ninth grade science class has been on sick leave most of the year and reportedly is looking for another job. Several other of Akins' recent hires have not had their contracts renewed, and a few more have elected not to return.

The most contentious issue, however, involves GS/A co-founder Karl Debro. After investigating complaints by the parents of two of his students, Superintendent Himmelberg concluded that Debro had committed serious breaches of professional conduct, including failing to adhere to prescribed course curriculum, humiliating individual students in his class and denigrating their parents' religious and political beliefs, and misusing his authority as a teacher to promote ideologies and causes he personally favored. Himmelberg entered two lengthy letters of censure in Debro's personnel file.

On the evening of May 13, the trustees of the San Leandro USD convened to hear an appeal of those censures. Attorney Ballinger G. Kemp argued the case for Debro on behalf of the California Teachers Association. Stephen Wood, a lawyer with the church-supported Pacific Justice Institute, appeared on behalf of Jeff and Vicki Godkin and their son Jason, one of two PIPE families whose formal complaints led to Debro's censure. The new city hall council chamber was packed with some 150 partisans of both sides.

Debro sat conspicuously in the center of the first row, clutching his wife's hand and earnestly searching trustees' faces for clues to his fate. For the teacher and his family there was more at stake here than just one small setback for gay rights: A decision to uphold the superintendent's judgments could be the beginning of the end of Debro's 14-year career in the public schools.

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Wood, looking as clean-cut and earnest as a young missionary, framed the issue before the school board in terms of parental rights and freedom of conscience. "We respect the passion Mr. Debro has for his causes, and his right to believe in his causes. But parents have their own rights, and they count on you to preserve their right to hold minority viewpoints." The Godkins, he insisted, have the right not to have their child "indoctrinated in beliefs that are contrary" to their own.

Both the complaints against Debro and the superintendent's findings remain confidential documents, but it was apparent from testimony that Debro stood accused of publicly humiliating the Godkins' son Jason, and another student, Elizabeth Lanet, ridiculing their Christian faith and defaming the youngsters' parents. The offenses allegedly occurred in class the day following a heated school board meeting at which PIPE activists Jim Godkin and Jeff Lanet accused Debro of pressing a pro-homosexuality agenda on his students instead of preparing them for the SAT exams. "Mr. Debro sees it as his role and purpose to teach his own view of gay rights so (students) won't become like their parents," Wood charged. He also accused the teacher of revealing to the class that Jason's parents had brought charges against Debro, violating the family's privacy and exposing their son to harassment.

Debro's attorney countered that the charges against his client were either false or exaggerated, and part of a scheme by "a vocal minority" seeking to "control not only what their children hear, but what all children hear" in school. "It's a flat-out lie that Karl Debro brought up the discussion of the board meeting," asserted Kemp, a small, wiry man who danced like a boxer when he spoke. Denouncing Himmelberg's investigation as "shoddy," he accused the school superintendent of "trying to lynch" Debro. "He's a facilitator," the lawyer insisted. "When he leads a discussion there's never any proselytizing."

The hearing lasted for four hours, with both sides claiming that the issues at stake were much bigger than Karl Debro or the district. Their decision could profoundly impact the future of public education in America, school board members were warned. The trustees remained as inscrutable as seven sphinxes, and after another prolonged meeting behind closed doors voted unanimously to back Superintendent Himmelberg. The censure memos would remain in Debro's file "with some changes."

The social conservatives and "family values" won the first round -- but this conflict is only just beginning. Formidable allies with political agendas of their own are preparing to jump into the fray on both sides. Dennis Price claims he turned down an offer by the Alameda County Exchange, a conservative group that has successfully battled gay rights initiatives elsewhere in the Bay Area, to support PIPE at school board meetings. "We didn't want to be seen as right-wingers," explains Price, who believes the issues PIPE is raising relate more closely to "the Republican educational agenda." "We're headed down a dangerous path," says Natalie Williams, a lobbyist in Sacramento for the Capital Resource Institute, a conservative Christian group focused on education, health and welfare issues. "This could spark major conflict between believers and non-believers in this country, and seriously divide the nation," she warns. "Reasonable people with reasonable solutions need to defuse this situation before it gets out of hand."

Meanwhile, the California Teachers Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, traditional allies of mainstream Democrats, have already gone to bat for the G/SA and Karl Debro. Oddly enough, however, the GLSEN has lately distanced itself from that struggle. "GLSEN is not involved in the Debro issue," confirms GLSEN's chief Bay Area strategist, Grant Peterson. "We're just focused on the safety issue." The retired teacher and GLSEN national board member has his eye on a different prize: a contract with the school district to do "diversity training" sessions with San Leandro's teachers on how to foster respect and safety for gay and lesbian students. Peterson has forged a second career as a trainer for "Building Bridges," a San Francisco-based non-profit group that contracts with local school boards to conduct such sensitivity training sessions. Critics consider what they do a pretext for imposing GLSEN's view of homosexuality on teachers and students.

Peterson has thus far obtained contracts from school districts in Hayward, Union City, San Lorenzo, Piedmont and Livermore, using tactics now visibly playing out in San Leandro and other communities around the state and nation.
First a chapter of the G/SA is born on a high school campus. Then the alarm is sounded -- often in response to some provocative incident involving G/SA members -- about threats to the safety of gay students in the district's schools. GLSEN members and supporters next descend on local school board meetings demanding special protections for homosexuals, and attack those who object as ignorant and bigoted. If the board resists, litigation is threatened and occasionally initiated -- at which point elected school officials usually capitulate, or else submit to, "diversity training" as a quid pro quo for dropping a lawsuit and/or the demand that homosexuals be declared a protected class.

For a while it seemed that San Leandro's school trustees might resist such tactics. But as the school year drew to a close the pressure on them to act became intense. On May 19 the board passed a resolution promising to "implement diversity training programs" that "address the needs of all students including gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and those who come from homes with gay or lesbian parents." With five trustees voting in favor, one against and one abstaining, the board also pledged to "foster a culture of safety and respect" for homosexuals in San Leandro's public schools. The school board's resolution was a much-watered-down version of one Peterson extracted three years ago from the Alameda County Board of Education, and Minton denounced it as inadequate. But Peterson declared it "a plus -- it's what the community wanted."

Score round two for GLSEN and gay rights. But the story isn't finished yet. Joanna Price is pregnant with her seventh child and won't be returning to teach in September. But two of her older kids will be students at the high school and "you can bet I'll be very much around as a parent," vows the feisty PIPE leader. And the next battle is likely to focus on how the district intends to address teachers and students regarding homosexuality and gay rights. Superintendent Himmelberg promises that teacher training and academic curriculum on the subject "will be very carefully planned." The district's responsibility, he points out, is to educate students and "provide a safe environment for them, not advocate a point of view. "

Debro, whose career may hang in the balance, accuses conservatives of scheming to throttle all discussion of gay rights and drive homosexuals back into the closet. "They have their own extreme religious views, and they're entitled to them," says Debro. "But teachers have got to be free to expose their students to new ideas, so they can learn how to draw their own conclusions."

"The G/SA claims we're trying to prevent teachers from discussing homosexuality, and that's just a big lie," says Price. "By all means, let's discuss homosexuality. But let's do it openly, honestly, respectfully, and in a proper forum."

What Price says she finds unacceptable "is the one-sided, doctrinaire approach to the issue" being taken at the high school. "What we oppose is a teacher taking up time in a science, math or English class to talk about gay rights, sexual orientation, their personal relationship with God or any other issues extraneous to the curriculum. What we oppose is teachers denigrating moral values and religious precepts they personally disagree with in order to promote tolerance. All we ask is that standards of professional conduct be observed and the state education code be adhered to. If certain administrators or staff members aren't willing to go along with that, maybe they don't belong in the public school system."

By Ira Eisenberg

Ira Eisenberg is a teacher and veteran Bay Area journalist.

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