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School Superintendent apologizes, controversial program is canned

A program meant to teach empathy that went seriously awry, upsetting students and angering their parents, was stopped almost as soon as it started.

Outraged parents had packed the Board of Education meeting Jan. 17, condemning the program and demanding answers.

The initial lesson of the so-called “Cross the Line” program aimed at students in grades six through 12 — ages 11 to 18 — was to be taught in sections. But calls started to come in to Superintendent Brian Doelger, Ed.,D., as students told their parents about the program.

Some of the students were shaken and confused by questions they were asked. The session was immediately stopped and a second session canceled, Mr. Doelger said.

Many parents were angered that the superintendent and the Board of Education were unaware of the specifics of the program. Mr. Doelger said it was not presented to the Board of Education mainly because he thought it would be non-controversial. It was not supposed to be political and/or controversial in nature, he said.

“If there is anything in the future, it will be sent to the Board of Education and then to parents” prior to being put in place, he said.

What troubled many students were personal questions relating to their gender identities, whether they had been molested, harbored thoughts of suicide, were drug abusers, what there political affiliations are, what their racial identity is, and whether there were tensions at home stemming from parents’ separations or divorces.

That’s not how Mr. Doelger expected the lesson to proceed, he said. Role playing, instead of self-revelation could have achieved the same aim of embracing differences and being supportive of others, he said. While some parents of graduates said their older children recalled being asked similar questions in past years, Mr. Doelger said he was not aware of the program being used at the school since he has been at the helm beginning in 2019.

In a Jan. 11 letter to families, he wrote that the intent of the lesson was for students to understand they have differing opinions on issues. A discussion of beliefs was meant to follow once students explained their differing attitudes. No student was required to participate, or to reveal how any statement specifically affected their lives, or represented their identities, the superintendent said.

Parents at the Jan. 17 meeting said students were told they would get a zero for the day’s work if they didn’t participate, and they understood they had to reveal personal information about themselves and their families, not talk about differing attitudes.

“The intent was to teach empathy, and while they were not mandated to participate, the lesson clearly missed the mark,” Mr. Doelger said in his letter to parents.

“We are trying to find ways to help our secondary students come out of the pandemic, get along better with each other, socialize more, and in general be happier,” he said. “As we continue in this effort, any future lesson will be sent home to you prior to the lesson so that you are aware.”

Mr. Doelger apologized for “any heartache” the lesson caused and said, “I can assure you a lesson like this will not happen again.”

He noted that while a room full of angry parents at the Board of Education meeting stated their objections, many other parents sent emails supporting the program. Both viewpoints were reflected in social media comments.

“I respect all of the parents in the community and think it is their right and duty to come to Board of Education meetings to speak out,” the superintendent said. “I welcome parents to any meeting. I also welcome parents to call me whenever they want. I think they will all tell you that I have taken every call and met with anyone who wishes.”