Governor’s School of North Carolina: Opening Minds or Violating Rights?
25 April 2008
Governor’s School of North Carolina: Opening Minds or Violating Rights?
Thesis statement: The Governor’s School of North Carolina does nothing illegal by exposing students to new ideas through its academic curriculum and optional seminars.
A. History of NC Governor’s School
3. Attendance to date
B. Purpose of NC Governor’s School
C. Governor’s School today
1. Nomination/selection process
2. Academic curriculum and electives
II. “The New Gay Teenager” Seminar in 2005
A. Seminar presentation, instructors, and attendees
B. Basis in The New Gay Teenager by Ritch Savin-Williams
C. Effects of seminar
1. Burrows family problems
2. Letters between family and Department of Public Instruction
III. Alliance Defense Fund involvement
A. Description of ADF
B. Letter and findings in ADP examination of legality of seminar
1. Human sexuality education programs in public schools
2. Parental review and consent
3. Constitutional rights
4. Abuse through emotional damage
C. Response of State Board of Education/Department of Public Instruction
1. Not a “public school”
2. Did not break any laws or violate rights
D. ADF response
IV. Continued Alliance Defense Fund pressure and recent controversy
A. June 2007 letter from ADF
B. DPI censorship at 2007 GSE
C. Faculty response
D. Faculty fired and rehired
V. Personal commentary: my GSE experience
A. Presenting ideas versus endorsing them
B. “Your truth is not my truth”
C. Future of Governor’s School
11 April 2008
Governor’s School of North Carolina: Opening Minds or Violating Rights?
The Governor’s School of North Carolina, a residential summer program for high school students, was founded “to explore ideas at the cutting edge of our intellectual and cultural lives” (North Carolina 1). Many people misinterpret this progressive exploration as liberal indoctrination, and one family has even challenged the legality of one particular Governor’s School experience. However, the Governor’s School of North Carolina does nothing illegal by exposing students to new ideas through its academic curriculum and optional seminars.
Established by Governor Terry Sanford, the Governor’s School of North Carolina is “the oldest statewide summer residential program in the nation for academically or intellectually gifted high school students” (North Carolina ii). The state-funded program began at Salem College in 1963 and grew to include a second campus at Laurinburg College in 1978. The location of Governor’s School East eventually changed from Laurinburg College to Meredith College in 2000. Since its founding, 29,600 students have attended Governor’s School. The Public Schools of North Carolina, the State Board of Education, and the Department of Public Instruction, with the assistance of the Exceptional Children Division, are all involved in the administration of Governor’s School (North Carolina ii).
The six-week Governor’s School program, which includes disciplines in both academic areas and the arts, chooses attendees through an intensive nomination and selection process offered to the top students across North Carolina. Counselors, principals, and teachers at the local high school level nominate students to county superintendents or to the headmasters of private schools. Each school is allowed a limited number of academic nominees, which is determined by the school’s sophomore and junior class populations, and students must meet certain criteria in order to apply. Two nominated students from each county are assured a spot in the academic areas, while the remaining academic spots are filled by a selection committee on the state level. Students applying in the arts are chosen by application and an audition in front of judges. Only rising seniors may attend Governor’s School for academics; rising juniors and rising seniors may go for the arts (Nomination Packet 1, 5).
The Governor’s School curriculum is split into three divisions. Area I is the student’s focus of study and the specific interest for which they were chosen to attend. These include Art, Choral Music, Dance, Drama, English, French, Instrumental Music, Mathematics, Natural Science, and Social Science. Students from different primary areas intermingle in Area II classes, sometimes called “Philosophy/Epistemology.” These classes are about the mind and knowledge in general, including how humans think and question. In Area III, students from various primary areas are mixed again, and they work to understand how their newfound knowledge relates to themselves and to society. Though Area III covers a wide range of topics, it serves foremost as a “testing ground for ideas, values, and personal concerns” (North Carolina 1).
Classes at the Governor’s School, generally founded on discussion rather than lecture, are based on the mingling of abstract theories with students’ personal responses. Instructors and other staff members are chosen from public and private high schools, colleges and universities, and private organizations. No grades are given and no tests are taken during the Governor’s School experience; the learner’s motivation lies instead in his or her intellectual curiosity (Nomination Packet 1, 5). The students, who are “empowered to construct knowledge and learn in their own unique style,” are the most important component of the classroom (North Carolina 1).
Electives, known as seminars, are optional gatherings led by Governor’s School instructors outside of class on afternoons or weekends (North Carolina 2). Topics vary widely; ninety-one electives were offered at Governor’s School West in the summer of 2005 (Chesser “Gay Seminar” 4). Examples of recent seminars include “The Concept of Concept Albums: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Free Speech for Sale,” and “Merchants of Cool” (“Optional Seminars” 1). According to one 2006 Natural Science student, “The optional seminars…brought about a wide array of subjects [that a] public school would never address” (“Optional Seminars” 1).
“The New Gay Teenager” Seminar
An Area III seminar entitled “The New Gay Teenager” was offered in the summer of 2005, two days before the final day at Governor’s School West (GSW). It was the only seminar offered at that time, and about half of the faculty and student body attended the seminar. The two faculty members who led the seminar were of a homosexual orientation. According to the 2005 GSW Director Lucy Milner, the homosexual instructors allowed students and faculty a “personal lens” through which to view the scientifically researched topic (Chesser “Gay Seminar” 1-4). The seminar “broke new ground for most students and many faculty members and staff for whom questions of sexual identity had not entered the forum of public academic inquiry before” (Johnson Letter to Howard Lee 2).
Ritch Savin-Williams’s book The New Gay Teenager provided the basis for the seminar. Over the 2005 Governor’s School session, sexual orientation had become an increasingly popular discussion topic on campus, and “[The seminar] responded to a need for additional factual, neutral information about this highly sensitive issue,” explained Milner (Chesser “Gay Seminar” 4). Savin-Williams’s book describes society’s categorization of identities based on sexual orientation, and it poses the question of whether embracing these labels benefits or harms gay teenagers. The author concludes that teenagers are now straying from labels like “gay” and using less specific terms in order to achieve a feeling of normalcy (Chesser “Gay Seminar” 3).
The Burrows family, whose son attended the seminar, disagreed that the seminar was “neutral” and instead described it as “pro-homosexual” (Chesser “Gay Seminar” 2). They alleged that the seminar was responsible for their son’s “confusion” about homosexuality (as well as their resultant family counseling) and wrote to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to express their disapproval. Because they did not give consent for their son to attend the seminar, they felt that their rights as parents had been violated. The family and the DPI exchanged letters in the months following Governor’s School. In one letter, GSW Director Lucy Milner insisted that “…the seminar was appropriate to the purposes and aims of the school as a whole,” and she said that not allowing seminars on specific issues like homosexuality would work against the Governor’s School mission (Chesser “Gay Seminar” 1, 4-5).
Alliance Defense Fund Involvement Unsatisfied with the Department of Public Instruction’s response, Mrs. Burrows contacted the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). The ADF is a conservative Christian legal group that agreed to examine the legality of the Governor’s School seminar. In February of the following year, J. Michael Johnson, Senior Legal Council for the ADF, wrote a letter to Howard Lee, the NC Board of Education Chairman, and June Atkinson, the DPI State Superintendent, on behalf of the Burrows family. In the letter, Johnson wrote that “The 2005 program has caused great distress for the Burrows family, and caused their serious emotional damage to their son, who has rebelled against his upbringing and denounced the faith of his parents and church since the day he returned from GSW” (Johnson Letter to Howard Lee 5).
Johnson also declared that “The New Gay Teenager” seminar broke several laws. He viewed the seminar as a sex education class, and North Carolina law requires that parents or guardians have the chance to look at and approve sex education information to be presented prior to the student’s participation. The State Board of Education must also approve human sexuality education programs in public schools. Neither of these procedures occurred prior to the seminar. Johnson also asserted that the constitutional right of parents to “direct the upbringing and education of their children” had been broken, and he furthermore suggested that the “emotional damage” caused to the Burrows’s son could be defined as “abuse of a juvenile” (Johnson Letter to Howard Lee 5). He ended his letter by saying that “…it is imperative that this situation be corrected immediately to avoid unnecessary litigation” (Johnson Letter to Howard Lee 7).
Lee and Atkinson promptly rebutted the Alliance Defense Fund’s letter. They believed the ADF’s legal concerns to be unfounded and explained that Governor’s School was not a “public school” as defined in the Basic Education Program laws, which therefore eliminated the sex education regulations. They also wrote that no one’s constitutional rights had been violated (Atkinson 1). The ADF retorted with a North Carolina statute that described public school as “any day school conducted within the State under the authority and supervision of elected or appointed city or council school board, and any educational institutional supported by or under the control of the State,” (Chesser “Legal Organization” 1). Under this description, the Governor’s School was included as a public school.
Continued Alliance Defense Fund Pressure and Recent Controversy
In June 2007, the Alliance Defense Fund wrote another letter reminding the Governor’s School that they would litigate if requests that “programs remain free of any seminars or unapproved sexuality education curricula” went unfulfilled (Johnson Letter to Thomas Ziko). Prior to the start of the 2007 session, Governor’s School East (GSE) instructors were told by the Department of Public Instruction director to plan lessons and seminars while keeping in mind what an outsider, whose identification was not specified, might think if he or she saw it on the GSE website. His instructions disturbed the faculty, who were worried that basing lessons on “what an imaginary group of people…might think (a) violated the basic idea of Governor’s School, (b) was generally pedagogically irresponsible, and (c) could never be successful since it was impossible to predict what would upset imaginary people” (Olson 2).
Meanwhile, trouble was stirring in relation to a Human Sexuality Film Series taught by Tanya Olson. Olson, who had been at GSE since 2002, is an openly homosexual college professor who has studied queer theory and taught sexuality studies. She was asked to work on the Gay and Lesbian Film Series, a preexisting elective, the first year that she was at GSE. In the subsequent years, the series followed a format identical to the 2002 series. In 2006, the session immediately following the ADF’s first letters, Olson was not allowed to offer the optional Human Sexuality Film Series, but she was promised that the series would be allowed in 2007. In the first week of the 2007 session, Olson was told that she could not show the videos for the film series or have “sexuality” in the series name (Olson 1-2).
The faculty of Governor’s School East, frustrated with what they saw as censorship, wrote the Department of Public Instruction and stated their belief that homophobia was the reason for censoring the film series. They also explained that planning lessons to ease the Alliance Defense Fund’s pressure went against “general tenants of academic freedom” and the purpose of the Governor’s School (Olson 2). The DPI director visited with the faculty, told them that signing the letter would not get them fired or punished, and requested that they keep the issue out of the public beyond GSE (Olson 2).
Controversy soon emerged from the faculty’s decision to do a creative piece at the Talent Sharing program in which their letter to the Department of Public Instruction was read. Accompanying the dramatic reading was an interpretative dance, and the presentation ended with faculty members reading their signatures aloud. Students gave a standing ovation, but no recording of the presentation was made (Olson 2). The program raised awareness of the DPI censorship on campus and students soon spoke out. “I feel that…by banning these videos they are limiting what we are exposed to,” one student explained (Gremaud 1). Others disagreed, saying “That’s probably stuff that we don’t need to see. They censored it for a good cause” (Gremaud 1).
The 2007 session soon came to a close, but GSE instructors kept the current controversies in mind. In December, Olson was mailed a three sentence letter stating that her position was being taken in “a different direction” and that she was being let go (Olson 3). Four of the five faculty members who had performed on stage in the Talent Sharing program also lost their positions, and the reason given was their participation in the show. Six weeks later, the four dismissed performers met with the administration and were rehired. Olson has never been contacted by the administration and believes that she “was fired because, either directly or indirectly, [her] presence serves as a point of attack for the ADF” (Olson 3).
Personal Commentary: My GSE Experience
I attended the 2007 East session of the Governor’s School of North Carolina. Tanya Olson was my Area III teacher, and I was a part of the standing ovation following the faculty’s presentation protesting DPI censorship in the Talent Sharing Program. Having spent six weeks on a Governor’s School campus, I can attest to the fact that it is acceptance in the Governor’s School community, not a one hour seminar, which allows students like the Burrows’s son to embrace new ideas and identities.
An excerpt from an email written by Dr. James Grymes, past GSE director, best explains the purpose of seminars like “The New Gay Teenager.” Grymes writes:
There is a common (and unfortunately growing) misconception among those unfamiliar with advanced education that the mere presentation of an idea is tantamount to an institutional endorsement of it….The Governor’s School mission is not one that advocates specific positions, but one that advocates exposure to as many viewpoints as possible….Each individual student is then encouraged to come to his or her conclusions about the merits of each position (Chesser “Does” 1-2).
Governor’s School unquestionably exposes students to controversial opinions, and this affects students differently depending on their upbringing. Seminars like “The New Gay Teenager” are apt to leave a longer lasting impact on students raised in strict Christian families because these students are less likely to have witnessed the discussion of homosexuality without a religious bias prior to Governor’s School.
A past Governor’s School attendee once justified the changes in himself by telling his unhappy mother that “Your truth is not my truth” (Chesser “Does” 1). Eerily, I wrote a large part of my college essay for the Common Application on my Governor’s School experience and the process of determining my own truths. Governor’s School forces students to think for themselves and, in the process, realize that their “truths” will differ from those of others around them. In many cases, Governor’s School provides the ideal opportunity for students to establish their independence from the opinions and prejudices of their parents. This detachment can be shocking for some parents, like the Burrows, who view inspiring open-mindedness as a threat powerful enough to deserve legal consequences.
However, threats of litigation seem to be the best way to go about thwarting the process of opening minds. Although it is unfortunate that Governor’s School has the Alliance Defense Fund looking over its shoulder, I believe that Governor’s School must stand strong on its foundation in the face of this confrontation. If Governor’s School continues to alter its curriculum for the ADF, the whole program will eventually truckle and become worthless. I am uncertain of who would win this potential battle in a court of law; however, until it reaches that point, Governor’s School must remain a beacon of free knowledge in an otherwise hopelessly bland public school system.
Atkinson, June and Howard Lee. Letter to J. Michael Johnson. North Carolina Family Policy Council. 16 March 2006. 22 April 2008. http://ncfamily.org/pdffiles/ DPILetter.pdf.
Chesser, Paul. "Does Gov. School Have an Agenda?." Carolina Journal Online 14 Aug 2006 1-5. 18 Mar 2008 http://www.carolinajournal.com/exclusives/display_exclusive.html?id= 3512.
---. "Gay Seminar Upsets Parents." Carolina Journal Online 30 Jan 2006 1-6. 18 Mar 2008 http://www.carolinajournal.com/print/print_issue.html?id=3079.
---. "Legal Organization Warns DPI Again." Carolina Journal Online 4 May 2006 1-2. 18 Mar 2008 http://www.carolinajournal.com/exclusives/display_exclusive.html?id= 3296.
Gremaud, Pauline. "Staff performs in protest of film removal." East Side Story. 6 July 2007: 1.
Johnson, J. Michael. Letter to Howard Lee and June Atkinson. Alliance Defense Fund. 23 Feb 2006. 22 April 2008. <http://www.telladf.org/UserDocs/BurrowsLetter. pdf>.
---. Letter to Thomas Ziko. Alliance Defense Fund. 7 June 2007. 22 April 2008. http://www. telladf.org/UserDocs/GovernorsSchoolLetter2007.pdf.
Nomination Packet for Governor's School. Public Schools of North Carolina, 2008.
North Carolina Governor's School East Student Handbook. Public Schools of North Carolina, 2008.
Olson, Tanya. “GSE Against DPI Censorship.” Facebook. 1 Apr 2008 http://www.facebook. com/group.php?gid=7951901330.
"Optional Seminars (GS West)." Governor's School of North Carolina. Public Schools of North Carolina. 10 Apr 2008