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TODAY contributor
updated 9/17/2007 5:59:22 PM ET 2007-09-17T21:59:22

The State of New Jersey mandates that all school children be taught a diversity curriculum by the fourth grade, and the Evesham Township Board of Education says that’s what it intends to do. It just doesn’t want part of that education to be conveyed by a film about diversity in families that includes households with same-sex parents.

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The film, “That’s a Family!”, looks at diversity through the eyes of children who talk about their own families. One child talks about having mixed-race parents. Another talks about living with a divorced parent. Others talk about single parents, traditional parents, adoptive parents.

And then there’s the child who says, “This is my mom. Her name is Betty. And this is my other mom. Her name is Kim.”

As one parent told NBC’s Ron Allen, “I'm losing my tolerance for the amount of tolerance I'm supposed to tolerate.”

The film was shown last December to a third-grade class in Evesham’s J. Harold Van Zant School. When parents heard from their children about the film, some objected. The school board stopped the film from being shown and appointed a committee made up of all segments of the community to determine whether the film was acceptable to show to the district’s children. The board also commissioned a poll of district attitudes on the issue.

The poll showed that Evesham, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, was split almost exactly down the middle — half in favor, half opposed. The committee was more positive, recommending that the film be shown in district schools, but to fourth graders instead of third graders.

At an Aug. 30 meeting the board heard the recommendation of the committee and then voted to ban the video altogether. The state-mandated diversity program would be addressed through discussion, it decided, not a film.

To those who opposed the board, it seemed clear that the objection wasn’t to showing single-parent or mixed-race households, but to showing children who had gay parents.

“It’s not about parental control, it’s about fear of gay people,” Steven Goldstein, the president of a New Jersey gay rights group, Garden State Equality, told “The New York Times.” “We think the school board’s decision hinges on its fear of one community — the lesbian and gay community — and violates the state’s law against discrimination.”

Parents and teachers divided
“What kind of message is the school board and community sending to children whose family structure is perceived as ‘different’ in some way?” Debra Chasnoff, the Academy Award-winning director who made the film wrote in an op-ed piece in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” after the board initially ordered that teachers stop showing the film. “‘You don't belong here?’ ‘Your family is not normal?’ Or — in the words of one parent who spoke out recently — ‘your family is ‘disgusting’?”

Those who fought to have it removed from the curriculum in Evesham say they’re all in favor of teaching diversity, but many parents say it should be up to them to decide when to tell their children about same-sex parents and what to tell them about such households.

“I think it's the parents’ decision to decide to teach their children morality,” local parent Mike Quinn told NBC.

“I think they need to be more open-minded because there are families like this in our schools,” countered another parent, Tricia Colmon.

Kathy Yeager, a teacher, said that parents are seeing issues that don’t even occur to the kids watching the film. “I think third grade is too young for them to understand the ramifications of what the parents are upset about,” she told Allen.

“That’s a Family!” was produced in 2000 by Chasnoff, who won an Academy Award in 1991 for a documentary about the nuclear-weapons industry. Highly praised by various groups and screened in the Clinton White House, the film, distributed by Women’s Educational Media, is used in hundreds of school districts around the country.

In some, where the content is an issue, parents are allowed to prescreen it and decide for themselves whether they want their children to see it. The compromise proposed by Evesham’s committee also recommended that local parents be allowed to make the same decision.

But it still wasn’t enough to get over the opposition to a boy named Daniel in the film, who tells viewers, “There are my two dads, Rusty and Jason.”

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