This article was updated on Aug. 10.
A petition calling for a “STOP” to the Lexington elementary schools “Serious Talks” program, which teaches students about diversity — including themes like race, culture, religion, disability, and gender identity — was posted on the petition-sharing website Change.org earlier this month, prompting this response from Lexington Public Schools Superintendent Julie Hackett, which was emailed to parents in the district last on July 14.
The petition raises concerns about whether material related to gender and sexual orientation is age-appropriate for elementary school children, and suggests that teaching about gender identity, including transgender identity, might conflict with religious and family preferences for some members of Lexington’s diverse community. The petition also complains of a purported lack of transparency on the part of the schools in implementing this program.
The petition’s creator is listed as “Concerned Lexington Parents Asking for your help.” It is unclear who exactly those concerned parents are, and there is no way to contact the creator through Change.org. A ticker on the site indicates that the petition has garnered more than 1,000 signatures, but the signatories’ names are not visible, so there is no way to know whether or not they are Lexington residents. Change.org is a global site, and anyone can sign any petition. The site uses algorithms to highlight certain petitions on its homepage, email newsletter, browse page, and in recommendations at the bottom of each petition. People who sign a petition are prompted to donate money to help promote the petition on Change.org and to share it on their social media feeds.
A person using the name “Calvin Lafayette” was the first to share the petition on both the Facebook group Lexington Parents and the online group Lex-PolRel, where residents can discuss issues related to politics and religion, but there is no one by that name living in Lexington according to town census information shared by the Town Clerk’s office. The Facebook post has been removed and Calvin Lafayette is no longer listed as a member of Lexington Parents.
Names were visible for users who decide to leave a comment on the petition, and by clicking on the names, it was possible to see the users’ location. A quick scan of the 30 or so comments posted showed people located in Jacksonville, FL and Brooklyn, NY, among other places across the country, though most listed their locations as Lexington.
“This topic is not appropriate for kids in elementary school,” one person wrote in the comments. “LPS should respect the law, as well as diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious values. It’s time to have a serious talk about ‘serious talks,'” wrote another. The comments are no longer visible to the public.
On August 2, Dr. Hackett sent another email to the LPS School Community alerting residents of a postcard that many people received in their mailboxes, again calling for a stop to the Serious Talks Curriculum and including a QR code linking to the petition. The postcard says “Lexington Public Schools” in large letters at the top, confusing some recipients who at first thought the missive was sent by the school district. It is unclear who sent the postcards.
Serious Talks was introduced at the Bowman Elementary School in 2010, and elements have since been adopted by teachers at Harrington and Estabrook. “Over the course of their elementary experience, students are introduced — in age-appropriate ways — to various visible and invisible identities we hold in the communities to which we belong,” Superintendent Julie Hackett wrote in her response. “There are lessons about how to have respectful conversations, and how to understand perspectives that are different from our own. Each lesson is developmentally appropriate and part of a yearlong sequence that has been thoughtfully designed to honor our diverse community,” she wrote.
A sample first grade lesson, described in this presentation to Estabrook parents last year, involves reading the book “And Tango Makes Three,” based on the true story of two male penguins who raise a baby penguin chick together in the Central Park Zoo. Students are asked to think about how the family in the story is similar or different from their own family.
Most lessons have nothing to do with gender. First graders interview a grandparent or other relative about family customs like traditional foods and religious holidays. Students in one 3rd grade class read “The Name Jar,” about a Korean girl who moves to the US and, after thinking of changing her name from Unhei to Suzy or Amanda, learns to love her own name. The book “How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down,” about the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, helps introduce the civil rights movement.
Hackett points to numerous efforts at transparency and communication around the curriculum, including the 2018 strategic planning process that involved parents, students, teachers and other members of the community, school-wide and classroom emails and information sessions, and individual meetings between parents, teachers and administrators.
While some parents have asked to see the curriculum, “the topics in our Serious Talks lessons are inspired by what goes on in the classroom,” Hackett explained to LexObserver. “We have curriculum overviews with topics broadly identified, and we share this information with our families, along with many other outreach efforts,” she said. “We don’t have scripted lessons written out because teachers differentiate the lessons depending on the needs of the children in their classroom.”
Parent Shannon Davis echoed this in recounting her child’s experience. Students in 2nd grade were asked about how they would describe their own identity. “It was very much what the kids wanted other kids to know about,” she recalled. “Because there wasn’t anyone in the class with a different gender identity, that’s not what they talked about,” she said. Instead, students mostly talked about their cultural or ethnic background. But, if there were a student who wanted to talk about their gender identity, Davis believes it’s important to do so. “Gender identity often forms in children who are trans around age 3 or 4, so it’s not like you’re not going to have trans kids in your school – you will,” she said.
“Children know and see differences, even ‘hidden’ ones,” said Jeri Zeder, whose kids attended Lexington public schools. “When children do not get the education they need to understand these differences, put them in context, and process healthy ways to respond, we do them a terrible disservice.”
The petition claims that the Serious Talks “gender ideology teachings” fall under MA General Law – Part I, Title XII, Chapter 71, Section 32A, which states that parents should be notified about the teaching of human sexuality and given the opportunity to opt out. But Hackett says that rule doesn’t apply here — the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which administers Section 32A, has said that the regulations don’t apply to materials that promote tolerance, including differences in sexual orientation, “without further instruction on the physical and sexual implications.” The Serious Talks program focuses on identity and inclusion, not sex and sexuality.
“Some parents are saying you can’t talk about a family with two moms or two dads without talking about sex, but there is no sex in the book ‘And Tango Makes Three’ — the baby is adopted!” says Davis, who is part of a two-mom family. The point, she says, is that “you are going to see families that are different than yours, and they are ok too.”
This is not the first time this issue has come to a head in Lexington. In 2005, an Estabrook parent was arrested after refusing to leave school property until he was allowed to opt his child out of classroom discussions about same-sex couples. The parent had been concerned by a book his child brought home called “Who’s in a Family,” that talks about different family arrangements, and includes families with two moms or two dads.
But Hackett does not see this as a wide-spread sentiment. “Community members, parents, teachers, staff, and students, overwhelmingly expressed support for Bowman’s Serious Talks to be scaled up and implemented in other schools,” Hackett told LexObserver. “My general sense is that most Lexington residents support the Serious Talks curriculum.”
LexObserver tried reaching out to some of the parents who have been outspoken in their opposition to Serious Talks but did not receive any responses by the time of publication.
“Children can’t learn if they don’t feel psychologically and emotionally safe,” Hackett said. “Serious Talks and other curricula in our school system matter because kids develop the language, skills, and sensitivities that they need to treat one another with dignity and respect and learn how to thrive in an increasingly diverse society.”
Serious Talks will be discussed at the first School Committee meeting of the year on August 29, 2023 and all members of the school community are welcome to attend.