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School district misled court on why it banned opt-out for LGBTQ lessons, religious groups say

Newly revealed public records show teachers were instructed to challenge students who question gender identity, and no evidence of concern about too many opt-out requests, the stated basis for the policy change.

Published: August 22, 2023 11:20pm

Newly revealed teacher-training materials and sworn affidavits show Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools misled the federal court hearing a lawsuit by religious families against the district's no-exemptions policy for gender and sexuality instruction in the English Language Arts curriculum, a national Muslim group claims.

School officials in the affluent suburb bordering Washington, D.C. told a judge last month it rescinded opt-outs and parental notification this spring because of the logistical challenges created by too many families choosing to remove their children from the "Pride storybooks," which teach children as young as 3 about sex workers, kink, drag, gender transitions and prepubescent same-sex romance.

The school system didn't say how many opt-outs it received, in total or relative to previous years, that purportedly justified an exemption from state law requiring opt-out availability for instruction on "family life and human sexuality objectives." It has yet to give even a vague estimate to Just the News, and it later told MoCo360 it can't quantify the number.

A week after the Aug. 9 preliminary injunction hearing in the lawsuit by Muslim, Catholic and Orthodox parents, the district belatedly turned over the "Sample Student Call-Ins" and "Responding to Caregivers/Community Questions" documents cited in a Nov. 22 email from the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals to county public school officials.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations noticed the documents weren't included in the district's July 17 production – in response to CAIR's June 8 request for  "any and all" records related to the curriculum sent or received by Superintendent Monifa McKnight or Chief Academic Officer Peggy Pugh. It asked for the documents by name "immediately" July 27.

The parents' lawyers at the Becket religious liberty law firm filed the documents in court the same day MCPS produced them, 20 days after CAIR's second request.

The first document gives teachers several stock responses to use against students who, for example, object to homosexuality, ask "what body parts" transgender people have, question gender fluidity or make gender stereotypes. Two responses start with "disrupt the either/or thinking." Others say "people make a guess about our gender" at birth and it's "hurtful" to say sex can't change.

The second document gives teachers "possible" answers to "possible" questions from parents and the community about the curriculum. Children are not receiving "explicit instruction" but rather exposure to "diversified gender and sexuality identity representation" to complement the "straight" and "cisgender" representations they see in daily life, and schools aren't teaching students to "think a certain way" but rather show "there is no one 'right' or 'normal' way to be."

The documents "clearly contradict" MCPS claims that the curriculum does not deliver "formal instruction about concepts that normally arise in sex education courses," for which the state expressly provides opt-outs, and that "students will not be criticized or penalized if they express traditional or religious views in the classroom," CAIR National Deputy Director Edward Ahmed Mitchell said Monday.

CAIR is sharing its file of received documents from the requests, including more than 100 pages of MCPS communications — some heavily redacted, both content and subject lines – that do not appear to mention logistical concerns about a flood of opt-outs. 

Its government affairs director, Robert McCaw, claimed in an affidavit he found "no mentions of any concerns" in the communications that the opt-outs had become "too numerous or burdensome." Just the News couldn't find any either.

Three days before the district flip-flopped March 23 and said it would neither inform parents about "inclusive texts" nor honor opt-outs, for example, Fallsmead Elementary acting Principal Matt Johnson shared his "boilerplate response to anyone asking to be opted out" with Michelle Schultze, acting director of school support and well-being. 

The GLAAD-produced book "Prince and Knight," which ends with a same-sex wedding, "is very much about understanding that there are many differences between people and being accepting is the goal," Johnson told a parent who demanded an opt-out for a second-grader March 17.

Staff repeatedly discussed internal and external criticism that schools were slow-walking or ignoring the inclusive texts, however. One person whose name was redacted told Pugh and Kisha Logan, director of pre-K curriculum, March 27 that middle-school content specialists and principals "are not using the books as intended, and they all say they have had little guidance" from the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs.

Hisham Garti, Montgomery County Muslim Council outreach director, took notes at a May 1 meeting with MCPS officials and Muslim leaders, his affidavit says. Pugh said the district reversed course after "a few parents of the LGBTQ community complained" their children's feelings were hurt when classmates left the room during the lessons, and officials gave no other explanation, according to Garti.

In another filing Aug. 16, the families' lawyers at Becket said the district has conceded its family life and human sexuality instruction now covers the same issues in the Pride storybooks – "sexual orientation, gender identity, intolerance, stereotypes, and stigmatization" – yet only allows opt-outs for the former. This amounts to "lack of general applicability" that triggers the highest tier of judicial scrutiny, where the district "bears the burden of proof."

MCPS has also conceded the storybook instruction may give children "a new perspective not easily contravened by their parents" but claims parents are "free" to contradict this perspective at home, Becket argues. By withholding parental notification, however, parents cannot "know what to discuss with their children or when."

Board member Grace Morrison, of Kids First, which joined the litigation as a plaintiff last month, said in an Aug. 11 declaration that her 10-year-old daughter has Down Syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder and "doesn’t understand or differentiate instructions from her teachers and her parents."

The only way Morrison learned the girl would be exposed to the storybooks was by proactively asking her teacher, who gave the mother the dates of instruction, according to the declaration. The Catholic family "kept her home" on those days as a result.

"By not allowing an opt out, my husband and I are forced to place our daughter in a school where she will be taught views on marriage, sexuality, and gender that will be practically impossible for us to contradict," Morrison said. "We have no other realistic choice but public school" because of the developmentally tailored instruction and therapy MCPS offers their daughter.

MCPS did not respond to queries Tuesday for its response to the allegations and estimate of how many opt-outs it received before reversing the policy.

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