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Op-Ed: We Remember When Novato 'Did the Right Thing'

Ten years ago, a controversy over addressing gays and lesbians in our public school curriculum boiled over. The founders of United for Safe Schools Novato reflect.

"THE TIME IS ALWAYS RIGHT TO DO THE RIGHT THING."

— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

A decade ago Dr. King’s words inspired us to action during very troubling times in Novato. Embroiled in controversy around diversity education, one 2002 news headline accurately read: “Emotions run high as Novato debates diversity curriculum,” while another described the debate as a “Diversity battleground.” Indeed, passions and tensions were running high.

In response to incidents of hate and bullying, our school district did the right thing by seeking materials that would teach respect and honor the need to be more inclusive in our efforts to create campuses and neighborhoods where all felt safe and welcomed.

The 's recommendations generated by its Diversity Advisory Committee involved presentations and curriculum reflective of our diverse students and families, including gays and lesbians. While the majority of Novato parents and residents supported reasonable educational materials that did not discriminate, our community wrestled with strong opinions against the inclusion of gay and lesbian families. An emotional and at times rancorous public debate ensued for two years.

After painful individual and community soul searching, which included advocacy by United for Safe Schools Novato, a grassroots effort begun 10 years ago this May, the school board ultimately did the right thing by adopting the proposed materials including the video "That's a Family!" As one board member courageously said, “This isn’t only about school curriculum. This represents something much greater; it’s about equity and basic human rights.”

The video, the flashpoint in our debate, was ultimately approved of by more than 97 percent of the parents of fifth-grade students. A lawsuit against the district by a handful of parents opposed to a play that included gays and lesbians in its message of respect was dropped after United for Safe Schools Novato and the ACLU intervened.

President Obama's historic support of same-sex marriage last month reminded us of the struggles and hardships of our gay and lesbian residents and allies 10 years ago in Novato. We endured. Our struggles ultimately created schools and a city where gays and lesbians are most welcomed. And we are most proud.

Now as then, we honor the leadership and courage of those who do the right thing even during very difficult circumstances. We applaud Novato’s individuals, organizations and elected officials who supported USSN along with other agencies, such as Spectrum LGBT Center, who joined with us to advocate for the rights of our gay and lesbian students, staff and parents.

Ten years ago Novato was “ground zero” in a national debate. We look back on that difficult time and know that we as a community, like our president, have “evolved” and are better for it.

Standing up isn’t easy, and at times it’s even perilous, but it is always the right time to do the right thing.  

Annan Paterson and Lynne Wasley, co-founders

United for Safe Schools Novato

Kris June 09, 2012 at 02:43 PM
I remember being shocked, as a kindergarten parent, that the film was even controversial. It was an eye-opening reality check. While schools do focus on academics, preparing our children for the "real world" beyond college is the ultimate goal. Diversity, acceptance, and compassion are essential in every grade level and beyond. Thank you to USSN and Spectrum!
Lynne Wasley June 09, 2012 at 04:11 PM
Thanks for the comments! I suppose some will always consider the basics to only include the three R academics (as LASPM posted), but for me, teaching our children to respect one another is about as basic an ‘academic’ as there is. Our schools have an obligation to make sure all their students feel safe and understand basic social values – this whether it's about raising one's hand, not pushing in line, or respecting another student who’s perceived as different. Additionally, optimal learning can only take place in an environment of respect and inclusion. In fact, the success one has in life/their jobs is far more connected to their ability to ‘play well with others’ than any A-plusses once earned. The idea that our diversity education shouldn't include gays and lesbians because this is religion or "extra-curricular," saddens me. I shudder when I go back to the years when our elementary kids were regularly playing “smear the queer” during recess and where teasing, bullying and hate speak against LGBTs was regularly practiced with impunity. The video TAF was chosen as a supplemental educational tool to promote tolerance and to help address this climate of fear. I like to think that ten years later we have "evolved" to a place where we understand that this isn't about who one prefers or doesn't prefer, but rather a very basic human right - that is the right to feel safe, and be respected for who you are! Though not updated: www.unitedsafe.com
Fire Frank June 10, 2012 at 05:37 AM
Novato has done a lot of good things. Novato is very tolerant and diverse, that is why we live here and love Novato.
Michael Christian June 15, 2012 at 04:38 PM
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead
Jen Tejada July 10, 2012 at 05:00 AM
Thank you Annan, Lynn, Sara, Paula, Brian, Reggie, USSN, the Multicultural Commission and everyone connected to this issue! You were not afraid to be out front doing the right thing, building a culture of respect and inclusiveness in the community often through some very challenging moments! Great to hear your efforts and results continue to make the news!

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