By Linda Tishler Levinson
Should schools let outside groups that have discriminatory policies use their facilities, even if they potentially have a strong mentoring program for minority youth?
That is the question facing the New Britain Board of Education. The board is reconsidering its policy on outside organizations in response to a complaint about the Boy Scouts of America. This discussion has raised numerous questions about civil liberties and about balancing the mentoring needs of the boys the Scouts serve against harm that may be done to children by discriminatory policies.
New Britain is a heavily Hispanic town with Latinos making up more than 37 percent of its overall population. Its school district is 57.3 percent Latino out of a student body of more than 10,000 students, according to its most recent strategic school profile.
The Boy Scouts, on the national level, have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, which prohibits the membership of openly gay Scouts and Scout leaders. Still, the organization provides mentoring for its members, which many agree is greatly needed within the Latino community.
The issue came up at a Dec. 3 meeting of the New Britain school board’s Policy Committee in response to a parent complaint, said Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, the board’s president. The issue, she said, is how the board’s policy should treat any organization with discriminatory policies. The policy involves use of school buildings and which organizations are allowed to use the schools to send out information. She said she expects they will change their policy in January.
“This is not strictly about the Boy Scouts,” she said.
“Clearly, we have a non-discrimination policy as a board and elected officials,” she said. “The board is taking a serious look at this.”
Beloin-Saavedra said she is torn between the Scouts’ national policy and what the group offers boys at the local level. She agreed the mentoring the Scouts offer boys is valuable, but said there are other mentoring services available to students.
New Britain Parks and Recreation offers both homework assistance programs and recreational activities, she said. New Britain High School offers mentoring programs as well, she said.
A look at the high school’s website shows an array of clubs ranging from the Future Business Leaders of America to the Gay/Straight Alliance to the Key Club.
Local Boy Scout officials say that while the national organization may have a discriminatory policy, they do not.
“The Connecticut Rivers Council does not discriminate based on sexual preference,” said Robert Porell, public relations director for the council. “The national organization is aware of our policy and has done nothing to change it.”
He said the council has been in communication with both New Britain Mayor Tim O’Brien and Superintendent of Schools Kelt Cooper about the issue.
“One of our existing goals is to expand within the Latino community, because we believe we do have a lot to offer them,” Porell added.
Leaders of gay-rights organizations have conflicted views on the controversy.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” said Robin McHaelen, executive director of True Colors, a nonprofit group that works to ensure that the needs of sexual and gender minority youth are recognized and met.
“I think the Boy Scouts’ policy is really misguided,” she said. At the same time, she said, she believes in freedom of association.
“It’s a slippery slope,” she said. While you don’t want groups that discriminate in schools, you don’t want to limit civil liberties.
Still, she said, “I think the policies are discriminatory and hurtful, and they target the wrong people,”
It is not gay people who target children; it is pedophiles who target children, she said.
Joshua O’Connell, co-president of the New Haven Pride Center, said that it is important for schools to protect against discrimination.
“The concept behind it is sound,” he said, adding, it is the right thing to do for schools to limit which groups meet there to those that do not discriminate.
“Overall, schools do a very good job of offering extra-curricular activities,” he said, adding that excluding a couple of organizations that are discriminatory should not harm youth.
By Linda Tishler Levinson