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.
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.