A former student of Erie Community Unit School District has started a petition on Change.org challenging the district’s recent decision to remove a book depicting same-sex parents and anti-bullying material co-created by GLSEN from its elementary school curriculum in the small Northwest Illinois town of about 1,600.
Sean Leeds, who grew up in the Erie school system, took to the popular online petition network to grow awareness of the ban, hoping that as more people speak out against it, the district leadership will reverse their decision. Leeds, who is openly gay, said that maybe one day a family like his will feel accepted in Erie.
“I started the petition because it is an issue that hits close to home for me, feeling different while growing up in a small town like Erie,” Leeds said. “It’s important for kids to learn about differences at a young age to help prevent bullying and name-calling because of differences in junior high or high school.”
In early April, Erie community parents and local Christian Church leaders expressed umbrage with the materials after a handful of parents filed formal complaints about the usage of “The Family Book” by Todd Parr, which mentions that some families have two moms and some families have two dads, to the district’s board of education. Some parents even held a prayer circle outside of a board meeting, according to Shannon Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.
Initially, the Material Review and Policy Reconsideration committee considered the complaints from two to four parents and deemed they were appropriate for the elementary school age level and left the decision open for the district’s Superintendent, Bradley Cox, to make a recommendation, according to Joe Weaver, a school board member who is part of the committee. Cox recommended that the district should remove Parr’s book, the GLSEN anti-bullying material and any other materials that suggest and “alternative lifestyle” from the school.
“It’s probably a bit of a misrepresentation to say that it’s just a few parents who have a concern when in fact, at the end of the day, it was a school board representing the views, values and philosophies of a community that really made the decision,” Cox told CBS affiliate Channel 4 WHBF. “I think our community has very clearly said if those topics come up with 6-year-old or 7-year-olds that they would rather have those topics discussed at home.”
The full school board voted 5-2 last week to implement Cox’s decision, according to Weaver, who thinks about 40-50 parents were not in favor of the book and GLSEN curriculum.
“I have no problem with [the material],” Weaver said. “I understand [the school board] was under pressure, and I didn’t feel that pressure. I didn’t think it was necessary.”
Prior to Leed’s Change.org petition, which has collected well over 700 signatures, over 100 Erie parents signed on to challenge the ban.
Weaver noted that much of the opposition against the materials stemmed from the religious beliefs of some of the parents and community members, including Erie Christian Church Youth Minister Aaron Sweeney, who attended the board meetings.
Sweeney declined to be interviewed, saying the church’s leadership forbid him from talking to “anyone who is not local,” because they feared it would draw negative attention to the church. Instead, Sweeney released this statement:
“We believe bullying in any form is wrong and we are not opposed to that being taught at the school. We believe that the sexually themed topics that GLSEN and ‘The Family Book’ by Todd Parr discuss are not age appropriate and may be confusing for children. It is our belief that these topics should be discussed at home and at the parents’ discretion. We are simply supporting our community and their beliefs.”
Todd Parr, who authored “The Family Book” a decade ago, said the book has been widely-used in elementary schools across the country and that some parents and religious leaders in Erie have “hijacked” its meaning by making it a gay and lesbian book.
“Originally, it was all about fitting as many different families into the book as possible,” Parr said. “It’s about making kids feel good about themselves and their families.”
Parr remembers growing up with an non-traditional family unit — essentially being raised by two moms, his mother and his grandmother — due to his mother’s illness throughout much of his childhood before she died.
When asked if he thought the anti-bullying curriculum would have remained in the district if it wasn’t co-authored by an organization with the words “gay” and “lesbian” in its name, Weaver said he could only offer his personal opinion.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Leeds will continue to collect signatures and raise awareness around the petition until June 25, when the school board will hold its next meeting.
“We hope the board will reconsider their decision and call for a re-vote.”