The volume of Montgomery County families asking to opt their elementary students out of classroom discussions on LGBTQ+ inclusive content became too overwhelming for schools to manage, the district alleged in legal documents.
But MCPS cannot determine how many families are opting out, a district official told MoCo360 last week. Some pro-opt-out advocates say that MCPS officials have told them a different story in private meetings.
The storybooks at the center of the lawsuit were introduced to the curriculum in December 2022. Since MCPS clarified in March that it would not allow parents to opt students out of interacting with such materials, the books have been the subject of protests, petitions and much public testimony to the school board. The lawsuit demanding the accommodation’s return was filed in May by six county plaintiffs.
Attorneys for the school defendants assert that an opt-out accommodation is never guaranteed, citing MCPS religious diversity guidelines that say “if such requests become too frequent or too burdensome, the school may refuse to accommodate the requests.”
A sworn statement filed by the school district’s lead curriculum expert, Niki Hazel, asserts the volume of requests had become just that—disruptive. Her statement describes a “growing number” of accommodation requests creating “significant disruptions to the classroom environment and undermining MCPS’s educational mission.”
MoCo360 filed a public information request with MCPS on July 25 requesting data quantifying the number of times an elementary student was allowed to opt out of class when one of these storybooks was read. On Friday, MCPS communications director Chris Cram responded to the request, stating:
“Please know that there are no responsive documents to your request. There is no numerical data quantifying the number of times an MCPS elementary student was allowed to opt out of class when one of the school district’s six LGBTQ+ inclusive storybooks was read by the teacher.”
Cram has consistently declined to comment substantively on the number of accommodations granted to families regarding the inclusive storybooks or the reasons why the option of such an accommodation was removed, citing the pending litigation. When reached for comment, plaintiffs’ attorney Charles McFadden said his firm’s legal filings speak for themselves.
Montgomery County Muslim Council’s outreach director Hisham Garti filed a sworn declaration on Thursday in response to Hazel’s statement, describing a May 1 meeting between himself, Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) representative Zainab Chaudry and several MCPS officials.
According to Garti’s contemporaneous notes, he said Chief Academic Officer Peggy Pugh told him the decision to rescind the opt-out was made “after a few parents of the LGBTQ+ community complained [their children] were offended and had their feelings hurt when students started leaving classrooms during instructions of these texts.” Cram did not respond to requests for comment on the meeting or Pugh’s alleged statement.
“What stayed with me is that based on the complaints of a few families, they rescinded the whole opt out,” Garti told MoCo360. “At no point in that meeting did they even mention the notion that too many kids were opting out and that it was causing disruption in the schools.”
CAIR’s deputy executive director Edward Mitchell pointed out that even in the school district’s legal filings related to the pending litigation, school officials have never included any level of specificity regarding the number of accommodation requests it granted prior to the March policy clarification.
Mitchell said he and other Muslim community leaders have spent months trying to speak privately with the school district to avoid “the chaos and controversy” that has erupted in recent months over the inclusive curriculum.
“Now it’s gone too far, because they appear to be dishonest in public about why they did what they did,” Mitchell said.
Mark Eckstein is an MCPS parent of two children who has been a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the district for years. He said he doesn’t see anything nefarious about the school officials’ comments to Garti and Chaudry during their private meeting.
“I don’t think it was their intent to say that was the only reason they stopped the opt out,” he said. “When you take a student and pluck them out of the room when an LGBTQ+ topic comes up, I think we’re all on the same page that that would offend the marginalized group.”
He also said that given the school district’s ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts, a parent’s desire to shelter their student from all mention of the LGBTQ+ community becomes “logistically impossible and operationally futile” to accommodate.
There’s a distinguishment between the “clearly-defined and state-mandated” opt-out provided for the Family Life and Sexual Health unit of MCPS’ health curriculum and the “more nebulous ‘opt-out’ accommodation” requested by parents from English Language Arts books, Eckstein said. He added that there’s “no defined protocol and process to quantify non-health-curriculum opt outs.”
What’s more, he said, MCPS has never been able to provide a clear definition of what constitutes an LGBTQ+ storybook.
“No one has ever asked MCPS to quantify the Black storybooks, the Muslim storybooks, the Jewish or disability storybooks—because that’s not 100% definable,” he said. “You can have an LGBTQ+ inclusive book, an LGBTQ+ centered book, or a book that mentions LGBTQ+ identities just once.”
When asked whether there is a way to quantify how many MCPS books, materials, lesson plans or discussions include mention of LGBTQ+ figures, history or related topics, Cram wrote to MoCo360 that it would not be possible.
Plaintiffs have filed a motion that, if granted, would legally require the district to reinstate the curriculum opt-out until the lawsuit’s resolution. The motion will be heard in Greenbelt’s U.S. District Courthouse at 10 a.m. on Aug. 9, and MCPS attorney Stephanie Williams said it’s possible the judge will issue a ruling before the new school year kicks off Aug. 28.