DARIEN – The Board of Education’s curriculum committee announced at its Thursday meeting that Julián Is a Mermaid – a book about gender and acceptance that was read to a second-grade class – did not qualify under the district’s rules allowing parents to opt out of the lesson, but school officials acknowledged that they could clarify and improve the policy of handling parent concerns.
Superintendent Alan Addley said the 11-member curriculum team that reviewed the book did “the best job they could” throughout the process, and notified 15 parents who called for removal of the book of their decision. But Addley said that the complaints could have been handled better.
“I would be in favor of clearly clarifying how a community member, staff member, board member or anyone actually would go through the process of expressing a concern and having it reviewed,” Addley said. “You’re always in a better position of having that articulated upfront, as opposed to doing it in real time.”
A viral video of a local parent raising concerns about the age-appropriateness of the reading garnered more than 455,000 views on Twitter and sparked national and international coverage in news outlets including Daily Mail, NBC and ABC.
The picture book – brightly-colored and couched in metaphor – tells of Julián, a young Hispanic boy, who saw a group of drag queens dressed as mermaids, wrapped a curtain around his waist to resemble a tail, and joined the group in a parade.
The book is taught under Darien Public School’s Social and Emotional Learning curriculum.
Last month, school officials denied claims that anything inappropriate had been taught to the Royle Elementary School class. Julián Is a Mermaid was then reviewed by the district curriculum leadership team and approved once again.
But concerns only grew louder when the Twitter account for the Connecticut Republican Party called on Gov. Ned Lamont and state Democrats to address the issue, sparking replies from numerous state senators and representatives.
“Any condemnation here from [Lamont] or [Connecticut Democrats]? We didn’t think so,” the post read. “They want to take control of education out of the hands of parents and local BoEs, and give it to woke (state) bureaucrats. Parents know this isn’t right.”
At a Thursday meeting of the board’s Curriculum Committee, member Julie Best questioned the district’s response.
“I think you guys know that I would have liked a response on this latest incident to have been sent out more broadly and more quickly, because I think there was more being stirred up in the community that I think… we might have been able to address or solve to some degree with an earlier answer,” Best said.
Christopher Tranberg, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that under current policy, when instructional materials are challenged, the curriculum team must consider how the text supports the curriculum, if it is developmentally appropriate, whether other resources represent a similar perspective and how it aligns with district goals.
Parents may also opt out of lessons, Tranberg said, as long as they pertain to dissection, HIV or AIDS, sexual abuse and assault awareness, firearm safety or family life education, included family planning, human sexuality, and parenting.
But while Megan Watros, a parent, said at the October meeting of the Board of Education that there should be an opportunity to opt out of Julián Is a Mermaid – given that the book is cataloged under “gender identity” on the district library’s website – Tranberg said the text did not meet the criteria for an exemption.
Board member Tara Wurm asked for clarification regarding the rules. “I’m interested to know how we’re defining human sexuality,” Wurm asked.
She also questioned whether parents could opt out of teachings if classroom materials involved human sexuality. Committee member Sara Parent responded, saying that based on conclusions from the administration, parents could not opt out of the reading.
After discussion, committee members identified the need for a policy designed to handle challenges to instructional materials. They plan to bring the suggestion to the entire board at the next meeting.
Best said that whatever the committee took to the board, two of the goals should be creating an efficient, streamlined process and properly informing the public.
“I think a tremendous number of hours have gone into handling the latest concerns and hopefully we can make that more smooth and swift,” Best said. “I think if people understand better how you’re going to look at a resource and assess it when challenged, if that information is more broadly available, then people might understand better.”
Reached by phone, Watros said the discussion gave her hope that parents would have additional options to opt out, but said she was unsure of how she viewed the administration.
“By their own policies, they should be getting consent from the parents to discuss these sensitive topics,” Watros said. “But they are really doing this in an underhanded way by using the Social Emotional Learning curriculum to fly these books in.”
The viral Twitter clip featured Watros’s comments at the October board meeting. She told CT Examiner that she had had an unproductive meeting with school officials prior to that meeting, and said the entire situation could have been resolved quickly had they apologized.
Watros said she didn’t know if the media response would solve the problem, but said she felt it was important for parents to be aware of similar situations.
“These are very mature topics, and for my children, it’s just not the right time. It’s just not appropriate for their age,” Watros said. “I can’t really say how I feel about it. I just want people to be aware, and do what’s best for their family.”
Watros said that she had faced criticism on social media, and underscored that she supports the LGBTQ community and Darien teachers. She said that it was ultimately an issue with the administration.
State Representative Matt Blumenthal, Darien-D, told CT Examiner that based on his experience so far with Addley, he had full confidence in him and his team to make appropriate and sensitive decisions on sexuality and gender identity instruction.
“Recent hateful rhetoric against the LGBTQ community, including the despicable ‘groomer’ smear, is unacceptable,” Blumenthal said. “I also condemn the recent online targeting of Darien educators in relation to this incident.”
Blumenthal said he had not read the book, but that its message seemed to be one of inclusiveness, love and acceptance that all people – especially children – need more of.
“Our kids and educators deserve to teach and learn without being dragged into politics,” Blumenthal said.