Virginia nonprofit asks federal agencies to investigate Montgomery school system -- Gazette.Net


A Virginia nonprofit advocating for “ex-gays” has filed a discrimination complaint with the federal departments of Justice and Education against Montgomery County.

The group — called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, or PFOX — contends that Starr made denigrating comments at a public meeting that hurt students. The group also said county public schools stopped a flier distribution program in middle and high schools, denying them access to students in a move reminiscent of the “1950’s Jim Crow South.”

Montgomery County officials have declined to discuss the details of the case, saying they don’t comment on pending litigation.

However, school district spokesman Dana Tofig said in an email that the county still lets fliers be distributed under the newest policy, even if the superintendent objects to the message.

PFOX bills itself as a group that advocates for “ex-gays,” or people who change their sexual orientation, something gay and lesbian advocates say is essentially impossible.

According to PFOX’s complaint, the group distributed fliers about its mission to Montgomery County public high school students for the last five years, after the school system’s policies.

In February 2012, according to the complaint, the group similarly distributed fliers. At a town hall around that time, Starr called PFOX’s actions “reprehensible and deplorable,” and sending a “disgusting” message, according to the complaint.

PFOX alleges that Montgomery County is discriminating against students who might respond favorably to the group’s message.

The complaint comes on the heels of a similar complaint PFOX made to the Montgomery County Board of Education, which denied it in November 2012. The Maryland State Board of Education denied the group’s appeal of the board’s decision.

In February 2012, the school board reconsidered its flier policy, and recommended a ban on nonprofit fliers in April 2012. Previously, nonprofits in secondary public schools could send home fliers four times a year if they conformed to certain criteria, such as stating that the fliers were not approved or endorsed by the school system. After controversies over PFOX’s fliers, the school system decided to ban sending home fliers to secondary school students.

PFOX’s fliers bore messages such as “sexual orientation is based on feelings and is a matter of self-affirmation and public declaration.”

Now, only Montgomery County Public Schools, government entities or parent-teacher organizations can distribute informational materials at any time during the year.

Nonprofits still may display materials in a designated location at all schools, as long as the material conforms to policy and regulations, according to MCPS’s revised policies.

Critics of PFOX say the group’s complaint is without merit, and the latest actions of a group propagating harmful pseudoscience.

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said claims from organizations like PFOX that a person’s sexuality was something people could change was “scientifically and physiologically not true.”

Evans said such messages had caused “incredible hurt and harm” to young people struggling to fit in at school and understand their sexuality.

David Fishback, advocacy chair for the Washington, D.C., chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), said that at its core, PFOX’s message amounted to: “Don’t label yourself because it’s wrong to be gay, and if you push yourself into the closet ... things will work out.”

“That’s a very disturbing message,” he said.

Tofig said fliers still may be distributed in elementary schools.

“Under our previous policy for [fliers] and informational materials, any [nonprofit] could distribute a [flier] to students in backpacks four times a year in all schools. Nobody restricted PFOX from distributing the [fliers] at all,” Tofig wrote. “In fact, Dr. Starr said very clearly that, even though he disagreed with PFOX, he would enforce the policy. However, the policy changed a year or so ago. Now, distribution is only allowed in elementary schools, not secondary schools.”

He was not aware of any PFOX sending any fliers to elementary schools, he said.

In the complaint, Regina Griggs of PFOX accused the school system of changing its policy “in order to prevent ex-gays from participating” in distributing the flyers, and compared the actions by MCPS to “the 1950’s Jim Crow South.”

The Gazette was not able to interview Griggs. She did not respond to messages sent to her email and Twitter account, and a number listed on PFOX’s website was not working.

The group says it is not a therapeutic or counseling organization practicing “conversion therapy,” the largely derided practice that claimed to be able to turn gay people straight. But on its website, the group offers advice on selecting therapists to help try to change sexual orientation.

The largest group which espoused that theory, Exodus, shut down earlier this year, apologizing for “years of undue suffering and judgment” that it had caused.

Medical experts have rejected the idea of homosexuality as being abnormal. According to the American Psychological Association, “several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. Lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships are normal forms of human bonding.”