As the Blade reported earlier this week, alarmed parents contacted the school district to complain about roughly 8,000 fliers distributed to young students claiming sexual orientation is not permanent, and that the organization — Parents & Friends Of Ex-Gays and Gays, or PFOX — can offer services and resources for youths experiencing “unwelcome” same-sex attraction.
“While non-profit literature must not be blocked based on viewpoint, it can and should be prohibited if it contains blatant misinformation that jeopardizes the health and well being of students,” wrote TWO’s executive director Wayne Besen in the letter to Starr. “The PFOX flier easily fits this description and the group has a dubious history that includes bizarre and bigoted practices that have no place in your public school system.”
The letter notes that the president of PFOX is on record using anti-gay hate speech and epithets, such as “faggot” when describing the gay community.
“Let’s not beat around the bush: If an unsavory organization insulted other minorities with despicable epithets and demanded that they be ‘exported’ or jailed – no school in Montgomery County would be distributing their leaflets,” Besen writes in the letter. “The fact that you would allow this politically motivated organization to spread its noxious message about LGBT people shows an unreasonable and unfathomable double standard.”
The district responded to Besen with the following:
Thank you very much for your correspondence regarding the fliers from PFOX. Many other community members and students have also emailed the Board of Education regarding the nature of these fliers.
First, I would like to say that Superintendent Dr. Starr has stated on the record that these fliers are reprehensible. I also empathize with your concerns and am acutely aware of the inappropriate content disguised within these fliers. Neither the Board of Education, MCPS, nor I support or endorse the content contained within these fliers. Unfortunately, there is nothing that we can do to prevent PFOX from distributing these fliers because we are bound by the law.
Current practice regarding the distribution of flyers is a direct result of a 2006 opinion by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Below are links to that opinion, as well as an August 2006 memorandum to the Board of Education, both of which put in context the current MCPS Board Policy and MCPS Regulation regarding distribution of flyers.
In most cases, fliers that are distributed in school are for legitimate opportunities offered by non-profit associations. PFOX is able to forward its agenda by distributing these fliers because it apparently meets sufficient criteria to fall under the auspices of this court ruling. Although we cannot stop the distribution of such fliers, we in MCPS are committed to promoting values of diversity and acceptance in our school system by teaching students how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate information.
Please rest assured that we in Montgomery County Public Schools are always extremely receptive to the community and towards promoting a culture of the twenty-first century.
Student Member of the Board of Education
When reached for comment, a school district spokesperson expressed sympathy for those who were outraged by the flier, but repeated the district claim that the situation was unavoidable under the law.
“4th Circuit Court made it clear that if we’re going to send home any fliers that we have to send home any 501(c)3 non-profit fliers,” said school district spokesperson Dana Tofig, when contacted by the Blade Wednesday. “Dr. Starr finds what PFOX says reprehensible …but the courts made it clear that we’re in a very tight box.”
On Feb. 7, Superintendent Starr held a televised student town hall, where the PFOX fliers came up almost immediately in a twitter question from a student.
“I find the actions of PFOX to be reprehensible and deplorable,” Starr told the gathering of students at Wooten High. “We are bound by law, …Circuit Court in District four, to enable non-profits to distribute fliers…”
Starr said he hopes a solution can be found that allows the school district to avoid this circumstance in the future.
“We can’t really do that much about it, unless we want to cut off all flier distribution — which is an option,” he said. “We’re bound to do it. And this group …has figured out a way to use that law to spread what I find to be a really disgusting message, quite frankly.”
Tofig indicated that the both the school district and Superintendent Starr would like to avoid controversies like this in the future, but that the district has yet to find a way to exclude material presented by organizations like PFOX if they are to include materials presented by the Parent-Teacher Association, which is also a non-profit.
“[Superintendent Starr] is disturbed by this and it’s frustrating for him and for the school system. We are limited in what we can do, but if people have ideas we’re perfectly willing to listen.”
“If people have other ideas, bring them on,” Tofig concluded.
Besen is skeptical that the school district will do much to avoid this situation in the future unless their hand is forced.
“I think that the school district will do nothing unless we do a larger campaign,” Besen told the Blade on Wednesday. “They are receiving horrible legal advice. We are not objecting based on viewpoint, but the specific group of people behind PFOX. They are a clear and present threat to students and the school district is blindly hiding behind legalese to justify it not keeping pupils out of harm’s way.”