Parental Rights vs. Public Schools

David Parker of Lexington, Mass., is scheduled to go on trial on Sept. 21 for asking his son’s public school to provide parental notification before discussing homosexuality with the 6-year-old.

The actual charge is criminal trespassing. But the real issue is whether parents or schools will control the teaching of values to children.

The conflict began on Jan. 17, when Parker’s then-5-year-old son brought home a Diversity Bookbag from kindergarten. Included was Robert Skutch’s “Who’s In a Family?” that depicts families headed by same-sex couples. Parker had wanted to decide for himself the timing and manner in which his son was introduced to the subject of homosexuality.

(The Bookbag is supposed to be a voluntary program but the Parkers knew nothing about it in advance.)

Parker immediately e-mailed the Estabrook school principal, Joni Jay. Parker expressed his belief that gay parents did not constitute “a spiritually healthy family”; he did not wish his son to be taught that a gay family is “a morally equal alternative to other family constructs.”

Parker acknowledged the equal rights of gays but objected to “the ‘out of the closet’ and into the kindergarten classroom mentality.” In essence, Parker highlighted the difference between tolerance, which acknowledges someone’s right to make a choice, and acceptance, which is the personal validation of that choice.

The conflict moved quickly from the Diversity Bookbag to the more general issue of parental notification. The Parkers wanted to know if sexuality was scheduled to be discussed in class so they could remove their son. They also wanted their son removed from any “spontaneous conversations” about sexuality that involved an adult.

By law, Massachusetts requires schools to notify parents when sexuality is scheduled for discussion. Lexington School Committee chairman Thomas B. Griffiths explained, “We don’t view telling a child that there is a family out there with two mommies as teaching about homosexuality.” In an e-mail, the Estabrook school principal stated, “I have confirmed … that discussion of differing families, including gay-headed families, is not included in the parental notification policy.”

At an April 27 meeting at the school, Parker refused to leave without an assurance that he would receive parental notification. Arrested for criminal trespass, he spent the night in jail.

When asked why he insisted on staying, Parker replied, “I wanted to see how far they [school authorities] would go for [my] asking something simple.”

The state now wishes to impose probation upon Parker, along with other restrictions – such as banning him from Lexington school properties without prior written permission from the superintendent of schools. This means he is barred from places to vote, as well as school committee and parent-teacher meetings.

Parker is contesting the charge. Why? After his arraignment, he stated, “I’m just trying to be a good dad.” During a May 11 appearance on the FOX News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” Parker expanded on this statement, saying that he wanted his son “to play on the swing set and make mud pies. I don’t want him thinking about same-sex unions in kindergarten.”

Parker’s attorney, Jeffrey Denner, points to a larger issue – “the role of family and what kind of encroachments government can make into children’s and people’s lives.”

Otherwise stated, schools are usurping the parental role of teaching personal values to children. They are not acting as educators but as guardians, “in loco parentis” (in the place of a parent). Some schools clearly consider this function to be their right, even over parental objections. Thus, Estabrook defends its “right” to teach Parker’s son to accept same-sex marriages.

Denner hopes to resolve the conflict before trial but he also intends to file a civil suit in federal court against the town of Lexington, the school system and its officials.

Meanwhile, there seems to be a campaign to discredit Parker. The Lexington School Board has reportedly accused Parker of wanting to be arrested to grab “headlines.” If true, it is strange that he wasted months on e-mails, faxes and school meetings before making his move. Parker’s actions sound more like those of a father with no options left.

The school also claims that Parker’s demands would prevent other children from discussing their families or drawing pictures of them.

But this is far from what’s been officially requested. According to Neil Tassel, Parker’s co-counsel, “the Parkers’ proposal was simple: notify them in advance if there is a planned discussion about same-sex issues, and, if an adult becomes involved in a discussion spontaneously begun by a child, then remove their child from the discussion.”

School authorities quite reasonably responded that they could not be held responsible for monitoring spontaneous conversations or remarks made in the class. Moreover, they contend that children with gay parents have a right to talk about their families and have their families represented.

At some point in the dialogue, however, reason broke down; police were called. The attacks on Parker have been so intense that Tassel recently found it necessary to write a defense in the local paper denying that his client is a shill for or member of Article 8, a controversial organization opposed to same-sex marriage.

He pointed to Parker’s Ph.D. to deflect criticism of his client as an ignorant book burner. To counter the charge that Parker hates gays, Tassel described him as “an exceptionally kind-hearted man” whose best friend was gay.

Perhaps Estabrook authorities are trying to divert attention from the real question: Is Parker simply demanding parental notification or not? I think he is.

David Parker cares so deeply that he is willing to go to jail and endure a lengthy court process for the right to be a parent. In a world where a myriad of social problems can be traced back to parental abuse or indifference, it is incredible that Parker is being treated as a criminal and not as the hero he is.

August 11, 2005