avatarJames Finn

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Parents Demand ‘Right’ to Straight Teacher for Their Public School Kids

At least one U.S. school board is cooperating, in an instance that can teach us all something important about parental rights

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Imagine one of the most lovely towns in the American West. Stunning mountain scenes inspire people through almost every window. You can fish in rivers and streams leaping with salmon and trout. You can hike and camp in breathtaking forests.

Imagine that the area is lightly populated but not isolated. Neighbors are warm and helpful like neighbors often are outside big cities. Incomes are below the national average, but the cost of living is even more below average. Most residents say they feel “very satisfied” with their quality of life.

Crime? None to speak of. Politics? The town itself leans left, while the county’s greater metropolitan area more than leans — with some 60% of the county population voting Democratic in the last national election.

I won’t keep you imagining. I’m describing Frenchtown in Missoula County, Montana — which consistently ranks among the happiest small towns in the U.S.

Something unsettling and disturbing happened in Frenchtown at the beginning of this school year

Imagine a classroom at the 4th and 5th grade Frenchtown Intermediate School. If you’re not familiar with American education, that means children between 9 and 11 years old. Imagine the kids chattering and bouncing one morning because Teacher is not doing boring lessons. She’s leading a “get to know you” session, and students have brought in family photos and favorite toys to show off.

Many of the children are happy to have their new teacher. Word at recess is that she’s super nice. Frenchtown parents love her, saying “No child left behind” is the teacher’s way of life.

As the excited kids pass around photos, one of them notices that Teacher has one on her desk too.

“Who’s that other lady with you?” asks a kid.

“Oh, that’s my wife. We were out camping and a friend snapped it. Don’t you just love the cloudy mountains in the background?”

Pin-drop moment? Hardly. Reportedly, the children barely blinked.

But that’s not the end of the story. Soon, a chain of events unrolled that left Frenchtown in an uproar, teachers fearful for their jobs, and children learning that gay people are suspect and controversial, best not talked about or even acknowledged.

(Note, the exact words of the above dialogue come from my imagination, but the basic facts have been detailed by eyewitnesses and extensively reported in local newspapers and broadcast journalism. Journalists are not reporting the teacher’s name or specifying whether she teaches 4th or 5th grade, at her request.)

Parents asked that their children be transferred to a class with a straight teacher

The timing of the complaints is unclear, but the school board conducted two closed-door meetings in September that were later revealed to have been discussions of transferring two students to a classroom led by a straight teacher — at the request of two sets of parents. At a September 25 open meeting, the board voted to override the district superintendent’s recommendation to keep the students with their original (not-straight) teacher.

Details are unclear, but the transfer has apparently already taken place. Two children have been removed from a classroom because their parents don’t want them children “exposed” to “homosexuality.”

Board meetings in October and December became very hostile, with the board chair (who voted to transfer the students) refusing to allow public comment or to hear comments from the teacher’s association, which opposes the board’s ruling. She cited a provision of Montana law specifying that personnel matters may not be discussed at school board meetings unless they appear on the agenda. She did not respond to reporters asking why she doesn’t simply put the matter on the agenda.

Many town residents have described themselves as embarrassed and saddened over the lessons the school board is teaching children:

She [the teacher] is warm and caring, and we felt like she was committed to the education of our child. We had no idea of her sexual orientation, and it wouldn’t matter to us.

— Racquel Rausch, in a statement to The Missoulian

That’s not all Racquel Rausch has to say. In public comments to the school board, she described how her daughter has come home from school crying after being teased by other students over supporting a teacher with a same-sex partner.

She says this sort of anti-gay hostility is new for Frenchtown and her kids, who had not previously been exposed to any sort of hatred of minorities. “These are not our values,” she told reporters.

The board chair refused to allow Racquel or other parents to continue speaking up for the teacher, threatening to have law enforcement remove them by force if they continued.

This is not a negative story. Frenchtown is rallying to support the teacher.

The good news is that Frenchtown residents aren’t taking this lying down. Teachers, school district officials, and many parents have spoken up loud and clear about their values of inclusivity — about teaching children by example to respect people who might be different from them.

Rausch started a petition in October that has attracted a lot of local support. She also filed a discrimination complaint with the federal Department of Education, and a friend of mine who is a federal civil rights lawyer told me yesterday that the DOE will almost certainly rule in her favor.

At a November school board meeting, the president of the Frenchtown Education Association, a teacher’s union, announced a unanimous no-confidence vote against the board chair, complaining that she has sparked a “crisis of morale” among Frenchtown teachers.

Letters to local newspapers are filled with positive, inclusive, supportive sentiment.

There’s a long row to hoe yet, because the board has not relented, but Frenchtown appears to be largely on the side of the angels, which is important to note and appreciate. The good folks of Missoula County seem to have this situation in hand, and they’re not asking for help. Let’s leave them to their important work while we discuss “parental rights” and inclusivity values in a diverse society.

Children have to learn to mistreat members of minorities

No child is born racist, homophobic, xenophobic, or anything else. Children instinctively get along with other children most of the time. They seldom care about matters that should be minor, like skin color, sexual orientation, ethnic identity, etc. Somebody has to teach them that trivial things like that justify mistreating people.

Sadly, Racquel’s children and their classmates are learning right now that it’s okay to mistreat members of minorities. Frenchtown’s school board is actively teaching them that just sitting in a classroom with a gay or bisexual teacher is so fraught that their parents have a “right” to have them moved for their own protection.

One member even openly disparaged what she called the teacher’s “adult choices,” adding that the school board must “advocate for the children,” implying that a gay or bisexual woman is dangerous or unhealthy for children.

So, let’s talk about “parental rights.”

That’s quite the buzz-phrase this year, isn’t it? From Don’t Say Gay Laws to removing books about LGBTQ and Black people from school and public libraries, conservative parents insist that they must have the right to instruct their children with their own values.

They frequently complain that they’ve lost that right because their children are sometimes exposed in school to ideas they disagree with, usually on conservative religious grounds.

That Parental Rights argument is fatally flawed

Can you spot the gaping hole in the argument? Events in Frenchtown illustrate it powerfully, which is why I’m writing this story. Let’s just observe off the rip that every parent in Frenchtown already has the right to teach their children any value they find important.

This is indisputable.

If certain conservative parents are convinced that LGBTQ people are immoral because we make bad “adult” choices, and if they wish to teach their children as much, nothing is stopping them. There’s no shortage of conservative churches in Missoula County that will be happy to help them. There’s no shortage of kids books and other media teaching that being queer is wrong, unhealthy, dangerous, etc.

Obviously, I don’t look favorably on such churches and media, but parents can, will, and should do as they wish. They already have the right to teach their children their values, and nothing any of us think or do could infringe on that right.

Parental rights are not at stake here.

Instead, parents who want their children to have a straight teacher (or who want school children never to earn about LGBTQ people in books) are asking for a special privilege. They want public schools to help them teach their values to their children and to insulate them from values they disagree with.

I don’t know, maybe that could work in a highly uniform, conforming society, but it can’t work in a nation as diverse as the United States, not even in rural Montana, as we’ve just seen.

The unnamed teacher is well liked in her community. She has the respect of the people of Frenchtown as both a neighbor and an educator. She has the Constitutional right to be married to her wife, she’s violating no laws, and the U.S. Supreme Court has definitively (Bostock v Clayton County, 2019) ruled that her employer may not discriminate against her on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

She’s simply one more member of a diverse society with the innate right to pursue happiness and live free.

Yet conservative parents want their kids out of her classroom because her happy, free life contradicts the values they wish to impart.

But, please, pay careful attention here if parental rights arguments feel powerful to you:

Teaching children values does not equal removing society from children or removing children from society.

Ideas and values constantly compete in any society, and children are part of society. Children have (and should have, in my opinion) the right to know and learn about their own society. Their parents have (and should have) the right to teach them, but they must not have the right to demand that schools and other government agencies insulate their children from ideas they disagree with.

Not convinced? Let’s try some analogies.

How would you feel if parents demanded that their children be removed from a classroom because the teacher is:

  1. A Jewish person who sincerely believes in Zionism
  2. An atheist who admits out loud she sees no reason to believe in God
  3. A Hindu who worships many gods instead of one God
  4. A Black person who believes slavery reparations are morally obligatory
  5. A vegan who boasts about never eating animal products
  6. A Christian who sometimes expresses a personal opinion supporting creationism

That’s for starters. I could make the list much longer, but I think you can see my point. We Americans seldom agree about everything. Some of us never agree about anything.

Parents can teach their children as they see fit, but if we all tried to insulate our children from values or ideas we don’t like, public education would simply fall apart.

Long and short: Parents have rights. Children have rights that are not always in perfect sync with their parents’ rights. Society has an existential interest in encouraging inclusivity and mutual cooperation.

The U.S. is becoming more diverse, not less. Members of minorities like LGBTQ people have the right to live and love in peace — as respected members of diverse communities.

If that’s too much to swallow, I’ll just say this:

No child should ever have to come home crying because she was bullied by children who learned values of exclusion and bigotry from education leaders.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. Pass it on?

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