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School Program aimed at teaching empathy condemned: Parents pack Board of Ed meeting to protest

Angry parents packed the Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, initially demanding the resignation of a staff member and anyone involved in implementing a “Cross the Line” program that left some students shaken and in tears.

While they didn’t persist with demands for heads to roll, they made it clear they wanted a concentration on core educational programs in line with requirements put forward by the New York State Education Department.

The intent of the Cross the Line is to make students aware of differences and similarities and teach them tolerance for others. The aim was to develop empathy for those who differ from them in thoughts or deeds, according to Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.D.

Its execution at Shelter Island School clearly missed the mark, he said.

Parents saw it as age inappropriate, embracing what one parent called liberal or “Woke” sensibilities and an invasion of students’ and families’ privacy. The result was an increase of bullying among students and great upset, several parents said.

Stick to basic education, they demanded. Many said they are not haters and discussed personal subjects at home to teach tolerance to their children. But this program  in school was a step too far, many parents said.

As part of the program, students as young as 11 were told to stand in a line with one another and cross over from the line if they identified with questions put to them. Initial questions could be as simple as asking those who were right-handed to separate from those who were left-handed.

But questions grew more personal. They were asked to step forward if they were Democrats or Republicans; which ethnic background they identified as; whether  they identify as homophobic, gay or transgender; had they ever been molested; or have thoughts of suicide. They were asked if their parents are separated or divorced.

Students were told to step forward in response to each question with which they identified.

Some parents said they would understand if a child is troubled at school and taken aside to talk about what might be upsetting them. But the result of this exercise had one father demanding that he never wants his child spoken to about personal issues unless he or his wife is present.

The program has been used in many school districts, Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Rylott said. But clearly, the way in which it was done, it has no place in the small community of Shelter Island, parents told educators.

“Stop molding them into something you think they should be,” a parent said. “Their sexuality is none of your business.”

Students come to school in some cases to escape the problems of their home life and should not be publicly forced to openly deal with such subjects, one mother said.

Students were told they had to participate in the program or they would be given a zero for the day’s work.

The Board of Education had nothing to do with the program, Mr. Doelger said, promising the parents they would be informed of any speakers or programs outside of the basic curriculum. He said there are upcoming plans to have Gina Kraus speak to students about drug abuse. Ms. Kraus lost her son, Evan, who succumbed to a drug overdose in March 2020.

He also said he planned to invite a motivational speaker to address students.

No one expressed any concern about those speakers. But parents made it clear they were putting the administration and Board of Education on notice that programs such as “Cross the Line” should never be repeated and there is much work to be done to deal with the upset they and their children have experienced.

Mr. Doelger said he would address students’ feelings and do everything possible to ease their pain.