CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - A Raleigh-based conservative group is urging parents to protest Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' efforts to protect homosexual and transgender students, saying those programs cross into indoctrination and leave parents out of the conversation.
"We believe that innocence is at risk in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system," Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, said Thursday at First Baptist Church in uptown Charlotte.
CMS leaders said they're using age-appropriate lessons and classroom practices to ensure a safe place for the most vulnerable children to learn. Chief Academic Officer Brian Schultz noted that suicide rates are high among LGBTQ youth.
"It's not about advocacy. It's not about condoning or damning," Schultz said. "It's about supporting our students."
Thursday's workshop outlining the coalition's concerns with CMS drew about 35 people, including state Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews and school board candidates Sean Strain and Jeremy Stephenson. Fitzgerald said her group, which espouses "pro-family positions" and religious freedom, normally focuses on statewide issues but is zeroing in on Charlotte because the city has been in the center of so much political controversy.
A Charlotte city ordinance outlining protections for LGBTQ people and providing transgender people access to the restrooms of their choice sparked the long, costly battle over House Bill 2, the "bathroom bill" North Carolina's state legislature passed in response. The Values Coalition is actively campaigning for Republican mayoral candidate Kenny Smith to defeat Democratic candidate Vi Lyles in the Nov. 7 election, with ads linking Liles to Democratic Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who was the face of Charlotte's pro-LGBTQ stance.
Public schools entered the fray in August 2016, when then-Superintendent Ann Clark announced new regulations related to treatment of transgender students, including using the names and pronouns they choose and honoring their identity in restrooms, locker rooms, yearbooks and graduation ceremonies. The Values Coalition led a school board protest that month.
In March, parents objected to the district's use of a book about a boy who likes to wear dresses. It was part of an annual training for students mandated by a settlement with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights over sexual harassment complaints against CMS.
Fitzgerald said her group is renewing its campaign because Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who took over in July, seems to be pursuing the same tactics as his predecessor. The latest pitch focuses on the Welcoming Schools program, which CMS is using in about a dozen elementary schools that have asked for help dealing with transgender students. The lessons to help young children understand gender issues were developed by the national Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy and support group, and is offered by the state's Healthy Schools Department as a resource for schools across North Carolina.
Fitzgerald told Charlotte parents the program is a curriculum designed to promote acceptance of homosexuality and gender fluidity, and said CMS is not letting them know about or opt out of classroom lessons that involve Welcoming Schools.
"(T)he word 'welcoming' has been co-opted by LGBTQ groups as a signal for advancing their radical sexual agenda," the coalition said in an invitation to Thursday's workshop. Fitzgerald urged concerned parents to contact school principals, Wilcox and school board members; sign an online petition; hand out flyers to other parents and vote for school board candidates who oppose Welcoming Schools.
The N.C. Values Coalition is urging supporters to distribute this flyer about the district's Welcoming Schools program to CMS families.
Schultz, the CMS administrator, said Welcoming Schools is not a curriculum that's mandated for all classrooms, but a menu of books, classroom activities and other guidance that schools and teachers can use at their discretion. There is no opt-out for that, he said, but parents are informed and allowed to pull their children out of the annual lessons designed to prevent sexual harassment. Those lesson plans are posted on the CMS website.
Schultz urged parents who have questions and concerns about what their children are learning to start by talking with their principal.
Fitzgerald said all 19 candidates who are seeking district school board seats on Nov. 7 were invited to Thursday's session. Stephenson, who is running in District 5, and Strain, a candidate in District 6, made no promises regarding the LGBTQ programs but voiced sympathy with the group's concerns.
Stephenson noted that decisions about day-to-day operation of schools fall to the superintendent, not the board. "Neither one of us, if elected, could bang the gavel and say, 'This is stopping,' " he said.
Both candidates, who are part of the Republican slate the Values Coalition is promoting, said they're concerned that parents haven't gotten good information from CMS. And both said they think Wilcox is receptive to change.
Strain, who has four children in CMS, said he has also had trouble getting clear answers to his queries about the programs. "I was disappointed ... because I was asking questions and I knew they weren't being forthright," he said.
Brawley said he hopes local parents and CMS officials can work their problems out without having to turn to the General Assembly. But he noted that he has responded when local families have felt like CMS isn't listening, introducing bills that would let Matthews and Mint Hill start their own charter schools and creating a study of breaking up large districts.