Education

ACLU Protests School's Ban of 6th Grader's Harvey Milk Report

| by The ACLU

RAMONA, Calif. – Wrongly citing a school policy on sex education, a California
school illegally censored a sixth grader’s classroom presentation about Harvey
Milk earlier this month. According to a demand letter sent by the American Civil
Liberties Union to the Ramona Unified School District today, the school violated
Natalie Jones’s free speech rights when it refused to allow her to give the
presentation in class. Instead, the school improperly required classmates to get
parental permission to see the presentation during a lunch recess.

“This whole thing is unbelievable – first my daughter got called into the
principal’s office as if she were in some kind of trouble, and then they treated
her presentation like it was something icky,” said Bonnie Jones, mother of the
Mt. Woodson Elementary School student. “Harvey Milk was an elected official in
this state and an important person in history. To say my daughter’s presentation
is ‘sex education’ because Harvey Milk happened to be gay is completely
wrong.”

The assignment, part of an independent research project class, was originally
to prepare a written report on any topic. Natalie Jones, who was inspired to
write about Harvey Milk after watching Sean Penn win an Academy Award for
portraying him, got a score of 49 out of a possible 50 points on the written
report. Students were then told to make PowerPoint presentations about their
reports, which they would show to other students in the class. The day before
Natalie was to give her 12-page presentation she was called into the principal’s
office and told she couldn’t do so.

When Bonnie Jones spoke with the superintendent about the presentation, he
said Natalie couldn’t give her presentation because of a district board policy
on “Family Life/Sex Education.” A few days later, the school sent letters to
parents of students in the class, explaining that her presentation would be held
during a lunch recess on May 8, and that students could only attend if they had
parental permission.

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“The principal and superintendent grossly misinterpreted school policy. They
illegally censored student speech protected by the First Amendment and the
California Education Code,” said David Blair-Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU of
San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Writing or talking about a gay historical
figure who advocated for equal rights for LGBT Californians is in no way the
same thing as talking about sex, and school officials should not pretend
otherwise.”

The Ramona Unified School District policy on “Family Life/Sex Education”
reads in part:

“(P)arents/guardians shall be notified in writing about any
instruction in which human reproductive organs and their functions, processes,
or sexually transmitted diseases are described, illustrated, or discussed. In
addition, before any instruction on family life, human sexuality, AIDS or
sexually transmitted diseases is given, the parent/guardian shall be provided
with written notice explaining that the instruction will be given…”

“Schools that act as if any mention of the existence of gay people is
something too controversial or ‘sensitive’ to discuss are doing a disservice to
their students,” said Elizabeth Gill, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national
LGBT Project. “This school completely overstepped its bounds in trying to
silence Natalie Jones by shunting her presentation off to a lunch recess time
and misusing a school policy to justify requiring parental permission to see
it.”

In today’s letter, the ACLU is demanding that the school:

  • Apologize in writing to Natalie Jones and send a letter about that apology
    to all the parents who were sent the principal’s letter about the
    presentation
  • Give Natalie Jones an opportunity to give her presentation to all the other
    members of her independent research project class
  • Clarify in writing that the parental notification and permission portion of
    the “Family Life/Sex Education” policy only applies to the curricula identified
    as “course content” for “Family Life/Sex Education instruction”

The ACLU is giving the district five days to respond or it may file a lawsuit
on Bonnie and Natalie Jones’s behalf.

Harvey Milk, one of Time Magazine’s “Time 100 Heroes and Icons of the
20th Century” in 1999, has been the subject of several books, an opera, a
documentary film that won the 1984 Academy Award for Documentary Feature, and a
feature film released last year that won two Academy Awards for Best Original
Screenplay and Best Actor. Milk’s birthday, the subject of a bill pending in the
California legislature that would make it a state holiday, is this Friday.

For additional information, including copies of Natalie Jones’s presentation
on Harvey Milk, the school’s letter to parents, and the Ramona U.S.D. “Family
Life/Sex Education” policy, visit http://www.aclu.org/Milk.