The Janesville School District superintendent issued a public apology Tuesday for the showing of a video that she describes as pro-gay marriage and in violation of district policies requiring the presentation of all sides of “controversial” or “political” topics.
In April, Craig High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance showed “Kids React to Gay Marriage,” a 16-minute video of children reacting to marriage proposals between same-sex couples and sharing their thoughts on issues like gay marriage bans or whether they would stay friends with someone who told them they were gay.
Bits of text flashed during the video offering viewers information about the history and status of gay marriage in the United States or about discrimination and hate crimes, among other things.
Superintendent Karen Schulte said in a statement that the GSA’s advisers and principal Alison Bjoin approved students viewing the video during classes. But Schulte said a later review of the video prompted her apology.
“The appropriate thing would be to present both sides of an issue or all sides of an issue, so that’s why I sent the apology, because I felt we did not follow board policy,” Schulte said in an interview.
Schulte said the video was “very biased” and violated the school district’s policies on controversial and political issues because it did not offer a similar look at views in support of keeping marriage between men and women.
The policy requires classroom discussions to include all sides of a political matter.
She said she felt “that the concept of gay marriage would fall under political action and/or legislation” because cases are being argued for and against it in courts across the country.
Day of Silence
The video was played on April 11 to recognize the Day of Silence, a national event to bring “attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools,” according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
Schulte — who said she was directed by the Janesville School Board to issue the public apology this week — also said in the statement Tuesday that the district includes elimination of bullying and harassment toward all students as part of its Day of Silence activities and the video was not aligned with that purpose.
Jill Marcellus, spokeswoman for the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, said the focus should be on the fact that students were trying to raise awareness about issues facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, rather than on the video.
“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth face so many barriers in school, from harassment by their peers to unfair policies that punish youth because of who they are,” she said. “School staff should encourage, not condemn, the brave efforts of youth in Gay-Straight Alliance clubs to make their schools safer for all students.”
Video creators Benny and Rafi Fine said in an email that they do not consider the video to be biased, and consider “raw opinions of children to be incredibly valuable insight on our current society.”
They also said they were surprised to see any need for a public apology over the video.
“We feel it is a great resource to discuss both sides of the issue by seeing not just how these particular children answered the questions, but to answer and discuss the questions and information we presented as a starting off point to discuss what each individual viewer of the episode’s opinions are on the subject themselves,” they said.
Schulte’s apology came after a School Board member contacted the district office about two parents and a grandparent who had contacted the principal upset about the video.
After receiving complaints, Bjoin told students in the Gay-Straight Alliance that some students may have been offended and talked about guidelines for the future, Schulte said.
A grandparent contacted the School Board because she felt a public apology for what happened in April was warranted also, board member Bill Sodemann said.
“I found the video to be inappropriate and propaganda laden in addition to the left-wing political view,” grandparent Jo Yungerman wrote to the principal in a letter dated April 17 provided to the State Journal.
Bjoin declined to comment. Teacher Diana Mishleau-Daluge, who is listed on the high school’s website as the GSA’s adviser, did not return phone calls.
This is the second time in six years that there was conflict in the school district over the Day of Silence.
In 2008, GSA students in both Janesville high schools hung informational posters leading up to the Day of Silence, which drew ire from some community members — including Sodemann, who was a board member at the time, according to Janesville Gazette archives.
“If you’re going to deal with those (controversial issues), then you’re going to deal with them in an even-handed and balanced way and this was neither,” he said Tuesday.
Sodemann also said he considered the video to be bullying people who did not support same-sex marriage on a day highlighting the wrongs of bullying.
He said he also would object to showing a video about keeping marriage between men and women — or about any issue — that didn’t offer a balanced presentation.