Hundreds of Lexington residents packed into a dark, steamy gym on Tuesday night to share their support for, or voice their concerns about “Serious Talks,” a program that teaches elementary school students about diversity and inclusion. The curriculum includes sections on race, ethnicity, and disability, as well as empathy, bias, and oppression, but the issue that brought crowds to what would normally be a quiet, bureaucratic school committee meeting was the teaching of material related to gender identity and sexual orientation.

Lexington Public Schools students and parents attend a school committee meeting focused on the district’s elementary school DEI curriculum. / Credit: Lauren Feeney

Over the summer, a petition demanding a “stop” to Serious Talks, started by a group calling itself “Concerned Lexington Parents Asking for your help,” garnered over 1,700 signatures, though names are not visible so it is unclear how many of the signatories are Lexington residents. The petition was followed by a postcard sent anonymously to Lexington addresses reiterating the demand to stop Serious Talks and urging people to attend the next school committee meeting to express their concerns. The petition and postcard also mobilized supporters of Serious Talks, including members of the Lexington Education Association, LexPride, the Lexington Human Rights Committee, some clergy members, students, and other members of the community, who wrote their own statements and urged supporters to attend the August 29 meeting. 

Anticipating a crowd, the school committee arranged for a police presence and an overflow room for the meeting, which took place at the Lexington Public Schools Central Office. Committee members and a few early arrivals met in a small conference room, while others watched on a projector set up in the gym next door. About 600 additional viewers joined via Zoom. More than 70 people signed up to speak in advance, according to School Committee Chairperson Sara Cuthbertson, including about 10 who said they were opposed to the curriculum and 3 who didn’t indicate a stance; the rest signed up to speak in support of Serious Talks. 

After a short introduction and some regular school committee updates, Cuthbertson opened the floor to “community speak,” a 30-min period during which members of the public who had signed up to speak were called to the podium. 

The first person to speak was Lexington parent Emir Roach, who opened with a question about “what went into the development of the curriculum and how it evolved,” as well as “what the intended outcomes are, how they are measured.” The committee does not respond to questions during “community speak,” but addressed these issues in a presentation later in the meeting.

Jennifer Bergen, a teacher at Diamond Middle School, read a statement from a student who wished to remain anonymous.

“When I was in sixth grade, I tried to take my own life,” the statement began. The student had grown up in a small town “that didn’t have the safe environment fostered in Lexington’s elementary schools,” and had kept their sexual orientation secret until years later, after having moved to Lexington, where they became an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ students.

“The topics that the Serious Talks curriculum aims to include could have saved me,” the student wrote. “Instead, I almost ended my life to avoid the truth.”

Sophia Ho, who turned 88 on Tuesday, skipped celebrating her birthday so that she could share her story. Ho and her family moved to Lexington 57 years ago. She remembers going to the library to look for books about China to read to her children and finding only one, which depicted Chinese people in long flowing gowns, with hair shaved in the front and braided in the back, a style typical of the Qing dynasty. Today, Ho says, if you walk into the Cary Library, you can find whole sections of books about China, including many written in Chinese. 

“After our son went to Estabrook, he came home one day and said ‘mom, what are we? Mary is protestant, Joe is Irish, David is Jewish – what are we?’” Ho recalled. “Kids have questions like that. Where better to learn it than the classroom?” 

Estabrook parent Josh Bulcao agreed that “Serious Talks is great, every kid should feel safe and included,” but expressed concern about teaching such young children about sexual orientation, and about a lack of transparency on the part of the schools. “Essentially, as a parent, I don’t have the right to know what’s being taught to my kid,” Bulcao said. “And to me that’s crazy.” 

Many other parents, students, educators, and community leaders spoke, mostly in support of Serious Talks, before the first time-limited “community speaks” period came to a close. Members of the school committee turned to other business, and attendees flooded outside for some fresh air. A circle of about a dozen parents and educators with differing perspectives on Serious Talks formed in front of the building, having a heated but respectful conversation. A Lexington parent, who didn’t want to use their name, handed out flyers encouraging people to vote out the existing school board. Tired families shuffled kids into their cars and headed home. 

Inside the conference room, Superintendent Julie Hackett thanked everyone who spoke, especially the students, and said that people who want to know more about the program are expressing a “real, valid concern that we should take seriously.” Hackett clarified that the purpose of the meeting was not to debate whether or not Serious Talks will continue. “We are doing this. We will do it even better as we go along. We will communicate better about it,” she said. 

Hackett then turned it over to a group of LPS administrators who shared a presentation entitled Serious Talks and the LPS DEI Curriculum, which answers questions about the development of the LPS curriculum, background on why it’s important, and examples of what’s included in the program. 

In response to the frequent question of whether children are developmentally ready to talk about these topics, the presentation includes research showing that children as young as two years old use race in choosing playmates, but says that conversations about interracial friendship can help. A chart from the American Psychological Association included in the presentation shows that by two years old children recognize the differences between boys and girls, by four years most have a stable sense of their own gender identity, and by 10, most have had their first “crush.” 

The presentation also looks at the 2021 Lexington Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which shows that 1 in 4 LHS students identify as LGBTQ+, and that those students are 4.5 times as likely to be bullied at school. Female students, Arab American or North African students, and students on IEPs or 504 plans are also more likely to be bullied, either online or at school. The presenter said research from the National Institute of Health, CDC and others shows that risk can be reduced by supportive structures and adults, including schools, and by “explicit inclusion and pro-active acceptance.” 

The presenters then gave an overview of the themes and content included in the Serious Talks program and shared some examples pertaining to gender identity. In the examples, younger students read “A Fire Engine for Ruthie,” and “What Riley Wore” — both books about kids who defy gender stereotypes. Students are then asked to talk about what sorts of things boys like or girls like, and come away with the understanding that “these are all just kid things.” Teachers stress “some not all” thinking — some girls like pink, but not all; some boys like soccer, but not all. 

The presentation was followed by another “community speaks” period which lasted until about 10:30 p.m, and even then, there were many people hoping to speak who did not get the chance.

Again, the majority spoke in support of Serious Talks, reiterating many of the same points about the importance of the program, particularly for LGBTQ+ students. 

Former school committee member Jessie Steigerwald read a letter signed by 1,037 people who live, teach or go to school in Lexington, expressing their support for the Serious Talks curriculum and affirming “the importance of recognizing all students and families in all our diversity, across race and ethnicity, national origin, language, faith, abilities, gender identity, romantic attraction, and other identities.” 

Parents Maliha Karim and Amber Iqbal both expressed some discomfort with the curriculum, and suggested that families that don’t feel comfortable with the material be given the opportunity to opt out. 

“Lexington is a place where everyone feels welcome and included,” Iqbal said. But “the number of people I see in this room with opposing views to this curriculum shows that not everyone is feeling the sense of inclusion.”

The final speaker was Jodi Finnagan, a Black woman, who said that “all of our marginalized communities should be standing up together.” 

In an email to the community on Wednesday, Hackett said that “In a world that is often divided, civil discourse matters. I am heartened by the thoughtful and productive discussion last night, and I look forward to continuing our conversations.” 

But not everyone was satisfied. Bridge parent Dihua Xu hoped for more detailed information on the curriculum, as well as more of a two-way conversation between parents and administrators. She also felt that not everyone’s voices were heard.

“You would think for a controversy like this, you would hear voices from both sides, but it was overwhelmingly from the supporters side,” she said. She blamed the discrepancy on a lack of communication about the details of the meeting and particularly the need to sign up in advance in order to speak. 

“I know that there are still community members who are opposed, but I think the large amount of support for the curriculum spoke volumes,” said School Committee Chair Sara Cuthbertson. “I did hear from a parent who felt more at-ease about Serious Talks after the presentation,” she added.

Shannon Davis, an LPS parent who spoke during the meeting, said that when she got home, her son said, “Remember, even the people that don’t agree are also good people. If you talked to them, you’d find you’d agree on a lot of things.” 

“Evidence that the curriculum is working in action,” Davis said. 

Join the Conversation


  1. This is a wonderful, thorough and well-written report of an impressive meeting. Even those who opposed seemed to keep things civil and conversational, and I was proud of our town’s inquiring and informative discussion. I congratulate the school committee on managing this gracefully. But it would be useful to note, too, that the number of speakers supporting the program were not merely a majority, but an overwhelming majority; for every person who opposed the program, at least ten (10) people spoke in favor of it (I counted).

    1. This is the environment that we live in. If we think that by removing Serious Talks, children will not be exposed to these topics then that is an error of judgement. Given that, I would prefer that my children be educated with some facts and have the knowledge to navigate the world that we live in. I think that is best done in the schools or minimally the schools need to include that as part of the curriculum.

  2. I’m glad that people were able to have their voices heard. I’d just like to comment that the parent who complained that the speakers were overwhelmingly from the supporters side needs to recognize that by all accounts, people in this town overwhelmingly support the curriculum; sounds like the speakers were a somewhat accurate reflection of how people feel about it. You can’t mandate that both sides get equal time when it’s not an accurate reflection of how people feel, and especially when anyone who wanted to was free to sign up to speak.

  3. Thank you for a very detailed and first non-bias article I have read about this meeting. I am one of those who was present at the meeting and infact got a chance (sadly at the very end of the meeting right before closing) to speak what are our real concerns about this curriculum and gave options as to what we can do to help unite us all in this matter. Most people don’t try to understand that all in all, we love the serious talk curriculum and are thankful for it being brought into our schools. I’m a Muslim, and have been living in Lexington for the past 13 years now. We have had our share of bigotry, racism and islamophobia in Lexington and I certainly do want to shield my kids from it. The only concern we have about this currculum is teaching kids the idea of sex and gender identities and opening discussion about all these difficult terms in a such a delicate and tender age like as little as PreK and first grade! Yes we have all kinds of people living in Lexington, with different color, sexual identities, religious beliefs etc then why can’t we in those tender ages focus on teaching love, respect and kindness to all rather than introducing them to a rainbow of identities. And if the school really wants to go ahead with including this in the curriculum, then the school should be very transparent in their approach to this curriculum and actually “include” the parents because after all, they are our kids, we have spent years trying to raise them with love and shielded them from things that we know their brains are not developed to understand yet. The parents who are not comfortable to introduce these topic with their kids should have the option to opt out? It’s not too much we are asking them, then why it is being made into such a big deal is beyond my understanding.

    1. I agree with you, Amber. Parents are the ultimate arbiters of what is appropriate for their children. You should know that not everyone agrees with the LPS’s position that an opt out option is not required under Mass law. My own children have aged out of the schools, otherwise I would be contacting the Mass Family Institute (MFI) for help. I encourage you to do so:

      1. Although I agree that parents are the ultimate arbiters of what is appropriate for their own children in many realms (that’s why we have constitutional rights which protect families’ opportunities to live in different states, participate in a religious community of their choice (and not have their kids indoctrinated into a religious tradition in schools), and they retain the optoin even to home-school or private-school if they want, what is taught in the *public* schools of any given town is (and will always be) within the purview of the elected officials of a local community, who are subject to recall in the next election if a sufficient number of people oppose the curricula they are prescribing within constitutional bounds. Lexington has elected *these* officials, for good reason, and the number of residents at the meeting who support what LPS is doing currently with the “serious talks” curriculum (and who were not selected for their view points) explains why. It is certainly appropriate for those residents of *Lexington* who oppose the curriculum to explain and argue their views publically, and seek others here who are like-minded (and I do think that dialogue is useful), but it is inappropriate for outside organizations, funded by residents of other towns, to be involved, except to the extent that those organizations have information to share which might be useful in dialogues/decisions here.

    2. I appreciate your concerns – and I agree that actual sex ed shouldn’t happen at these young ages – but as my family has two moms, I want my kid to get the same respect and kindness that his family is valid, and exists, as your kid would have for being Muslim. So the unit on Families showing different kinds of families is super important to me, and what if your kid opted out, and then he/she said to my kid “Oh, your family isn’t real – you can’t have two moms.” This actually happened to us multiple times. I don’t understand how it harms the other kids to know that Bobby has two dads or Sue has two moms. Just as it isn’t inappropriate for me to point out that your family may have a mom and a dad. They can just know that when two people love each other; they can make a family and have a child. There’s no need to introduce sexuality into it at that age (and the lessons I saw, did not do so). Most kids will be heterosexual and introducing different types of families will not change that. I’m just asking that my family be recognized the same as yours. I’m asking for my kid not to be teased and ostracized for his differences, same as yours. That’s why it’s a big deal to me.

    3. The presentation at the school committee meeting clearly showed, with references to peer-reviewed data, that children in kindergarten and first grade can understand and process the information in Serious Talks.

      My daughter was at Bowman from 2009-2015, the period when Serious Talks was developed. My wife and I never had any concerns that she was being presented information that she couldn’t understand or process.

  4. I appreciate Amber Iqbal’s comment, as it has helped me to sharpen my thinking about the Serious Talks curriculum, especially the question of why opting out is not really a solution.

    It’s easy for some of us to forget (or even to deny) that there are children aged 0 through 18 who are living in loving families with siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins of diverse gender identities—openly. These children’s brains, like all children’s brains, are perfectly capable of understanding, and do understand in age-appropriate ways, the gender identities of these beloved people in their lives. These are wholesome, healthy families, and the diverse gender identities of the people in those families do their children no harm by being themselves.

    Many children who come from families of diverse gender identities attend Lexington Public Schools. Like all children, they will talk about the people in their families in their classrooms and on the playground. I find it hard to believe that, when they do so, they are harming the brains and the development of their classmates.

    When children whose family members do not include people of diverse gender identities encounter children whose families do, the children may have questions. Or they may express discomfort or hostility toward each other. These questions and behaviors will—not may, will—arise at school. And that’s one of the many reasons why the Serious Talks curriculum is called for and necessary.

    Aside from the fact that Serious Talks is not an “opt out” program under Massachusetts law, as a practical matter, it’s hard to imagine how “opting out” would work. When one child in school asks a classmate, for example, Why is your cousin a “they,” not a “he” or “she,” how is opting-out supposed to happen? Why would we want to prevent a teacher from helping both children to understand each other?

    At the August 29th School Committee meeting, and in numerous other reports and publications and school-parent meetings, Lexington Public Schools has repeatedly explained the Serious Talks curriculum to parents. LPS has been demonstrably transparent in its approach to this curriculum, and Superintendent Hackett has publicly promised that the schools will continue being transparent. I don’t think the question of transparency is really the issue. I think the issue is—and I am guilty of this myself—that we adults make assumptions about others based on our own experiences and beliefs about the world. But in public school, our children encounter all kinds of different people—and that’s a good thing! May Serious Talks continue so that school is the place where our children encounter each other with love, respect, and kindness.

    1. The people who want to cancel Serious Talks for the current school year claim lack of transparency and that they were left in the dark. I have a folder with information about Serious Talks that goes back to 2018. Although it didn’t have a name when my daughter was at Bowman from 2009-2015, my wife and I knew what was being taught. If residents weren’t paying attention or chose not to participate, that’s on them. That’s not lack of transparency, it’s not being engaged enough to understand what was going on.

  5. I second Amber’s position as a father of children at young age. When I drove to school down at a southern state in 2000s, I would turn on radio and listen to conservative talk show saying “little yellow guys come to our country to take our jobs”. So you can understand how we appreciate the inclusion and diversity of Lexington. So please don’t mix our parents concern with race, religion, and minorities.

    However, I disagree with the chart “showing that by two years old children recognize the differences between boys and girls, by four years most have a stable sense of their own gender identity, and by 10, most have had their first crush”. Just like we cannot generalize people (children in this case) by male or female gender stereotype, thinking all the children from Kindergarten are developmentally ready to topics on gender identity and sexual orientation is irresponsible as a teacher, an educator, or a parent. How much time would a teacher spend on specific questions from a curious student? If any child with unstable sense of his/her own gender identity, would this topic in a short classroom discussion push him/her out to an unnatural boundary? Is school responsible for any consequence? I don’t understand why introducing such a highly debatable topic to K students where our political leaders are still fighting their battles at the venues from Congress to Supreme Court. Should we be politically correct by using our kids as guinea pigs?

    Lastly, I also question the statistical method used here to draw the conclusion that an overwhelming majority is supportive to the curriculum. First, shouldn’t we weigh the opinion of students’ parents more? Second, how many supporters are actually parents with young kids in Lexington? Third, would the school have the guts to put on an anonymous poll within the students’ parents?

    1. The point you make in your last paragraph also applies to the people who want to cancel Serious Talks. The last time the Observer ran an article about Serious Talks I counted the location of the commenters who advocated cancelling the curriculum. More the 50% were located outside of Lexington.

  6. Everyone has a sexual orientation and gender identity. There’s nothing incomprehensible or inappropriate about it. If we can talk about me and my husband as a family or me as a woman, then there’s no reason why we can’t also talk about a family with two Mom’s or a transgender person. If one’s mind goes to sex acts simply by mentioning same sex partners or trans people — that’s on YOU because I assure you the rest of us aren’t thinking that way and children certainly are not.

    There’s no way to opt out of gender or sexual orientation because it’s part of everyone’s identity.

    1. It is precisely the assertion that “everyone has a gender identity” which is in dispute, along with the claim that children should be taught that everyone has a gender identity. This is not to deny that some people experience themselves as having a gender identity, or to claim that those people should be treated with disrespect.

      At worst the concept of gender identity is logically flawed, based on unverifiable and non-falsifiable premises and is empirically without evidence or merit, according to neuroimaging studies. At best it is an instantiation of normative gender roles based on regressive sex-stereotypes of femininity and masculinity.

      In addition, there may be significant negative social and psychological consequences to students and their families by the implementation of curricula which requires that students believe in an internal subjective entity called a gender identity which alone determines if they are a boy, a girl, both or neither and which would violate the basic educational principles of age-appropriateness, the provision of a safe and supportive learning environment and the incorporation of diverse perspectives.

      I suggest that the concept of gender identity be replaced by the concept of gender nonconformity which makes no unsupported conceptual claims and is an empirically observable phenomena across culture and time.  Simply put, it is the fact that some people do not conform (in behavior, appearance or preferences) to the sex based stereotypes and expectations of their particular society.  It asserts nothing about the existence of a universal, internal, subjective identity and nothing about the empirical existence of a sexed brain and does not thereby imply that a child can be “born in the wrong body.” Teaching about the many ways that people can express their preferences, think about themselves and inhabit their sexed  bodies, does not necessitate the use of the concept of gender identity.

  7. This is the first time I’ve taken issue with an article in the Observer. The only “lessons” included in the Serious Talks curriculum are lessons designed to foster empathy, tolerance, and understanding. As far as I know, kindergarten and first grade teachers (or any Lexington teachers) never stand in front of their classes and say “OK, kids, it’s time to talk about gender identity and sexual orientation.” I think it was irresponsible of the Observer and a disservice to Serious Talks imply that gender identity and sexual orientation are part of the curriculum.

  8. I’d like to talk about the idea of age appropriateness. In most families, most of the stories, books, and media we share with our children depict heterosexual, cisgender people. In this way, we are teaching our children about the existence of heterosexual, cisgender people from birth. Most of us do this matter of factly, without thought. Some people even joke that a little toddler girl has a boyfriend or that a little boy is going to break a lot of girls’ hearts. Even if we don’t use these words, all this teaches young children—from birth onward—that heterosexual and cisgender identities are the norm.

    (The same is true regarding race, national origin, faith, abilities and disabilities, etc. This is why I made an effort to share diverse books, people, and experiences with my child from the time he was born.)

    As elsewhere, schools are places where all kinds of people exist. In Lexington, our schools deal with this honestly: by acknowledging that all kinds of people exist. Our schools are charged with nurturing every child (regardless of identities) to reach their highest potential. To do that, they must teach that “we all belong”. The Serious Talks curriculum does just that: it acknowledges that people of all identities exist, that we all belong in Lexington schools, and we must treat each other with respect across our differences. We don’t have to agree with each other, but we do need to treat each other with dignity.

    Acknowledging the existence of gay people (e.g., through picture books that show all different kinds of families) isn’t teaching young children about sex any more than acknowledging the existence of heterosexual people (which we do in many ways from the time a child is born) is teaching young children about sex. The same is true for gender identity.

    Likewise, acknowledging the existence of gay or trans or nonbinary people isn’t teaching young children to be those things. The absurdity of that idea is apparent when we think about other identities. For example, when we acknowledge the existence of people of all races, faiths, abilities and disabilities, we aren’t teaching children that they are or should be a particular race, faith, or ability.

    On the other hand, when we pretend that only one type of person exists, we do harm. For example, when we focus our education on white people, men, Christian people, people without disabilities, etc., we give the false impression that only they are worthy—and we exclude much of our community’s population. Besides providing an incomplete education, we set the stage for false beliefs, prejudice, bullying, and other harms.

    We are a diverse community with many different belief systems. I believe that our schools should be honest in acknowledging the existence of all kinds of people and teaching respectful behavior and civil discourse across our differences. If some people believe that certain identities are wrong or sinful, they can teach those beliefs at home.

  9. I would like to respond to the concern that speakers were disproportionately chosen from the group that supports the Serious Talks curriculum. I sat in the overflow room. My non-statically valid assessment of audience responses (e.g., heads nodding in agreement, applause, etc.) is that greater than 2/3’s of attendees support the Serious Talks curriculum.

    1. I agree. I spend most of the time in the overflow room, and part of the time in the meeting room. I didn’t count, but I’d put the proportion of Serious Talks supporters as even higher than that–maybe 4/5.

  10. There is an easy solution to the so called controversy — put it on the ballot and let the voters decide. The residents who want to cancel Serious Talks can run for school committee. They can collect signatures for a referendum question. Of course, those options require people to appear at public forums, identify themselves, and answer questions about their beliefs and motives.

    1. The annual town elections are are on a Monday in late winter. Turnout percentage is in the low teens. How often does it happen that an outsider shocks the anointed establishment candidate and wins? Almost never happens, which is why the races are usually uncontested.

      That being said, I agree with you and others that the opponents of the curriculum should not have hidden behind a cloak of anonymity. That was a tactical error that undermined their position.

  11. Khalil Gibran (a Lebanese American) On Children, 1922
    Your children are not your children
    They come through you but not from you
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you
    You may give them your love but not your thoughts
    For they have their own thoughts
    You may house their bodies but not their souls
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
    Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams
    You may strive to be like them
    But seek not to make them like you
    For life goes not backward, not tarries with yesterday
    You are the bows from which your children
    As living arrows are sent forth
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite
    And he bends you with his might
    That his arrows may go swift and far
    Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness
    For even as he loves the arrow that flies
    So he loves also the bow that is stable

  12. I have a pretty good memory of my early elementary school years. It was an exciting time with a lot to learn and many new friends to make. I was totally comfortable being a boy (and remain so with my male identity today) and remember having my first totally innocent crushes on girls as early as first grade. The only things I knew about relationships at that point were that people kissed and hugged and got married and lived together. At that time on TV, many married couples were portrayed with separate beds. And something that is key: My parents had no idea about any of this because none of it felt weird and I felt no need to share any of it with them.

    So what I do is try to imagine I was my same self but in a female body at that age. How would I express that something felt wrong about being a girl – and who would I even tell? What would have gone through my mind when I had crushes on girls when I was supposed to have them on boys? Could I even feel comfortable mentioning any of this to my parents?

    Just hearing someone in authority say, or reading in a book, or seeing on TV that, yes, sometimes little girls feel like boys and, yes, sometimes they like girls, would have been huge.

    We know that we have children in our schools who fit this description. Why wouldn’t we acknowledge their experiences for them? Why not let their peers know they exist in order to avoid teasing or bullying down the line?

    We are lucky to live in a community that values all of its children and understands the need for Serious Talks and other DEI initiatives within our schools.

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