By David Walinski
When 22-year veteran teacher Janet Boyer invited a lesbian counselor and a gay man to speak before her health class at Charlestown [Indiana] High School on March 6, she didn't think anything of it. After all, the two had spoken to another health class of hers last fall without repercussion. She did not clear the speakers with the principal, George Marshall, because he'd never required it.
But the March presentation set off a chain of events culminating in a tightening of the school's speaker policy. The new policy, which seems to be derived from a district policy Marshall was not enforcing, says that controversial speakers must now be cleared with the administration before being allowed into the classroom.
In effect, gay and lesbian speakers could be barred from speaking on gay topics at Charlestown High in the future if the principal deems them too controversial.
Mrs. Boyer was also compelled to sign a letter delineating the new policy. If she had refused, she could have been charged with insubordination and fired. The letter was placed in her permanent file. She is currently trying to have it removed through mediation.
The incident might have remained localized had not a member of Louisville P-FLAG broadcast an account of it across the Internet. Gays and lesbians nationwide sent angry letters to the principal and the superintendent as a result.
But the situation became muddled after the Jeffersonville [Indiana] Evening News and the Louisville Courier-Journal published accounts at variance with the Internet version. The accuracy of the Courier-Journal article was accepted without question by many, including a columnist for the Louisville Eccentric Observer, an alternative publication, who called the Internet message a "persecution alert."
As it turns out, the Internet posting, though tinged with overblown language, was basically accurate, while the Jeffersonville and Louisville articles were not.
In an extensive telephone interview with this newspaper, Boyer set the record straight for the first time.
Last fall, Boyer recounts, she was assigned to teach health to 28 sophomores. Because the textbook is too large to be taught in-depth, she felt there would be only enough time to cover six or eight chapters. So she asked the students which chapters they were most interested in. Among the ones they chose were chapters 16 and 17. In chapter 17, on male and female anatomy, homosexuality is mentioned.
As part of her approach to that chapter, Boyer chose to invite a certified counselor from LifeSpring Mental Health Services in Jeffersonville to speak. "I didn't think I needed to clear it," she says, "because Mr. Marshall never required it before" (previous principals have, she says). The counselor, a lesbian, asked if she could bring a gay man with her. Boyer assented.
Because of the sensitive nature of the presentation, Boyer gave students the option of going to the library without penalty. The material would not be part of any exam. One student took her up on the offer. The presentation went off smoothly. There was no negative feedback from students or parents.
For the second semester, Boyer faced a similar challenge with the hefty textbook and again asked her new students what they wanted to learn. They chose, among others, chapter 7, on relationships. Again, homosexuality is mentioned, and once more she invited the counselor and her friend to speak.
This time, however, they brought three other gays and lesbians without notifying Boyer beforehand (the Internet posting failed to mention them). "When she came with three others, it didn't make any difference to me," Boyer says. "I did not think I could tell the two guest speakers to come in, and not the other three. I didn't see any reason why they couldn't speak." Five of the thirty students opted out. Once again, student feedback was positive; only one parent complained.
However, for the first time Marshall expressed concern that Boyer had not cleared the speakers with his office. He was also bothered by the number of speakers. Boyer told him she didn't see that the number made any difference. She asked him what he would have done. According to Boyer, he said he didn't know.
Boyer also claims that Marshall, a former basketball coach at Jeffersonville High, discounted the counselor's credibility to speak on gay issues because she is lesbian.
Word of the presentation quickly spread to other parents with children at Charlestown (but not in Boyer's class), who sent letters of complaint. Many go to the same church.
Eventually, Boyer says that Marshall asked her to sign a letter critical of her decision to invite the speakers. She refused.
The reprimand became a point of contention in the Internet-newspaper debate that followed. The Internet posting insisted that the letter existed. Superintendent Pulliam told the Courier-Journal, however, that Boyer had not been reprimanded. Marshall agreed.
But Boyer felt that she had and read the letter to this reporter over the phone, requesting only that it not be quoted. It opens by praising Boyer for being an outstanding educator but goes on to criticize her in rather harsh terms for her choice of speakers.
Boyer took the letter to a liaison between the administration and the teacher's union, who developed a second version without the reprimand language and faxed it to Marshall. He edited it further, added the new policy on speaker clearances, and asked Boyer to sign it. Though it no longer has the tone of a reprimand, it does discuss the incident briefly.
The new policy requires teachers to know beforehand the material to be presented by guest speakers, to know their background, to check with the principal's office if there's anything about the speaker that might be controversial, and to consult with the principal about any questions or concerns.
All of which may be moot for Boyer next year. Because she is the only teacher at Charlestown High certified to teach speech and drama, she will be returning to those subjects next semester as part of the curriculum cycle. But she worries about the effect the recent incident may have on gay and lesbian students at Charlestown.
"I know of a former student who is lesbian," she relates. She was a good student, Boyer says, who nevertheless attempted suicide and later became involved in self-destructive behavior.
How are teachers going to reach such students, she worries, if gay issues become off limits in Charlestown's classrooms?
This article was published in the June issue of The Letter, Kentucky's gay and lesbian newspaper. It is reprinted with permission.