Each summer, 800 of North Carolina's most talented high school seniors attend the country's oldest Governor's School, a prestigious six-week residential program with campuses in Winston-Salem and Raleigh. The 45-year-old program, which receives about $1.3 million from the General Assembly, eschews traditional teaching methods—including grades—in favor of exploring "the most recent ideas and concepts in each discipline." It asks students to adopt the motto "Accept nothing. Question everything."
This summer, one former Governor's School instructor is questioning the influence that a powerful "family values" group, based in Arizona, has had on a North Carolina institution that has fiercely guarded its academic independence.
Tanya Olson, a community college English professor who led the Human Sexuality Film Series at the Governor's School East Campus in Raleigh for four years, was not offered her position back for this year's session, which is now under way. She calls the loss of her job retribution for her criticism of school administrators and state officials after they suspended the film series and censored her course material—apparently in response to the threat of a lawsuit from the Alliance Defense Fund.
Olson's question in simple: "Why is this openly homophobic group, located in Arizona, that has a clear evangelical Christian backing and funding, determining the curriculum of a North Carolina school program?"
ADF, a nonprofit, wields $25 million in annual contributions, according to the group's tax records. It spends its funds suing to prevent gays from marrying, adopting children and serving in the military. The group helped the Boy Scouts win a landmark Supreme Court case allowing private groups to deny access to gays, and last month lost a California Supreme Court battle to delay the state's ruling on gay marriage.
But state school officials denied that ADF's threat of legal action influenced their decisions.
"We get suggestions and requests and all sorts of things from a variety of groups and individuals, ranging from larger groups to smaller groups, about what to teach, students to have and not to have, faculty to have and faculty not to have," said Tom Winton, who oversees the Governor's School for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. "In the end, we make our own decision. We don't bow to those groups."
ADF, however, takes credit for stopping Olson's film series and bouncing the openly gay teacher out of her job.
"I don't think any of those persons would have taken the actions that they have, were it not for the public pressure that was applied. That goes without saying," ADF senior legal counsel J. Michael Johnson told the Indy. "If they want to try to save face, though, that's fine with us. This is not some sort of contest between the Alliance Defense Fund and them."
Of the Department of Public Instruction, he added, "I'm not overly concerned about their talking points."
Olson said in an interview that the Governor's School East faculty had received "directives" from the Department of Public Instruction about altering curricula over the past several years—directives they suspected originated with ADF. A group of instructors wrote a letter in 2007 to Winton and Mary Watson, director of DPI's Exceptional Children Division, expressing concern that "when we put together our curriculum, we had to consider what that might look like to somebody outside of Governor's School."
Also last summer, a group of approximately 25 instructors who signed the letter read their names out loud during an interpretive performance at the Governor's School Talent Sharing show.
"The big thing that's happened is, more and more, as a faculty, we've been asked to think about what we teach and what we say, because the ADF sends letters that say, 'We're watching,'" Olson said.
Olson received notice of her dismissal in December 2007, along with four music and dance instructors who helped stage the protest performance, which included a deejay making scratching noises over the spoken-word letter from the teachers to DPI. DPI officials, who declined comment on personnel matters, later offered the four arts instructors their jobs back, but did not rehire Olson, according to Governor's School East Site Director Michael McElreath. DPI prohibited school faculty from granting interviews for this story.
Watson said in an interview that discussion of queer and homosexual themes is permitted at Governor's School "if the topic comes up," and currently there is no ban on teachers including the topic in their courses.
Watson added that sexual orientation plays no role in hiring decisions, which are made exclusively by DPI. Olson identifies publicly as "queer," and she believes that her public sexual identity and academic interest in queer studies may have drawn additional attention from outside groups.
Olson said she did not receive an explanation for her dismissal until she met with Winton and Watson five months later. The reasons given, according to Olson, were: turning in paperwork late, a student's complaint about getting her voice heard in class, Olson's appearance in a student documentary in which she criticized the administration, and her suggestion for a new name for the film series. When DPI asked her to remove the word "sexuality" from it, she dubbed it "The Film Series That Dare Not Speak Its Name."
The controversy over sexuality curriculum at Governor's School began in 2006, when ADF threatened to sue DPI for offering a "homosexuality advocacy seminar" at Governor's School West in Winston-Salem the previous summer.
"It is our view that the seminar and related materials were presented in violation of state law. For that reason, we are sending you this letter as a formal demand that you ensure the Governor's School ceases and desists from any similar offerings in the future," Johnson wrote in a letter addressed to the State Board of Education and State Superintendent June Atkinson.
Atkinson wrote back insisting that the optional seminar, titled "The New Gay Teenager," did not violate constitutional law, and argued that because Governor's School is a summer residential program, it does not fall under North Carolina's Basic Education Program, which mandates abstinence-until-marriage sex education.
Since brandishing the lawsuit in 2006, the ADF has monitored Governor's School closely. According to Johnson, ADF works as the "legal arm" of the North Carolina Family Policy Council—a local think tank and lobbyist group that has published more than a dozen papers on homosexuality, arguing against a genetic basis for homosexuality, advocating for the removal of extra sentencing for hate crimes, and describing school diversity initiatives as promoting "dangerous messages about sex and gender."
During the 2006 Governor's School summer session, ADF—with the N.C. Family Policy Council carbon-copied—threatened to sue again, this time over the screening at the Winston-Salem campus of the film American History X, a movie about skinheads that includes a male-on-male rape scene. The school subsequently pulled the film at the last minute. That year, DPI suspended Olson's film series, which she had offered as an elective on the Raleigh campus the previous three summers. The school also began posting full course descriptions online and asking for parental permission in advance for each film that students could watch.
Olson said that she was told the film series would be back in one year, and that she complied with the suspension because she "loved Governor's School."
"I was willing to do those things ... because they kept saying this will fix the problem—even though we would say we don't think it's going to fix the problem—I would do it because I love teaching at the Governor's School and I trusted them that we were all on the same side enough that that would be true."
However, in 2007, after students had arrived for classes, DPI officials told Olson that she could only show one film from her series.
"It was the very first day of classes that Tom Winton—I think we were getting ready to show the first film in the series the next day or that night—said, I looked at your film list, it's great, it's fabulous, except for these four films, which just happened to be the four films in the Human Sexuality Film Series. You can't show these at all," Olson said.
That decision came after Johnson sent DPI a cautionary letter, again on behalf of the N.C. Family Policy Council, reminding the administration of ADF's "continued scrutiny of the Governor's School program curricula and activities" for the 2007 season. In particular, Johnson wrote, ADF requested "that your office ensure that the programs remain free of any seminars or unapproved sexuality education curricula this year, and that religious viewpoints will not be unconstitutionally maligned, but instead treated with equal dignity and respect."
In a letter dated several weeks later, the NCFPC wrote to State Superintendent June Atkinson, announcing that they were monitoring Olson's film series that year, which included the film Ma Vie En Rose (My Life in Pink). NCFPC Attorney Tami Fitzgerald described the film as "objectionable on the grounds that its primary purpose is to expose the issue of transgenderism."
According to McElreath, Olson was allowed to show Ma Vie en Rose, but no other film, and instead could devote four elective periods to the "overall topic" of sexuality, including the concepts of gender and desire. "So, while not heavy on film, I was pleased that the topics Tanya wanted to address were actually addressed in an appropriate way with interested students," McElreath wrote in an e-mail.
Following her dismissal, Olson posted an "Open Letter to Governor's School Students" on her blog, openingwindowsgse.blogspot.com.
"I understand they're concerned that Governor's School will lose its funding—and they may be right," she said in an interview. "They may be exactly right that that's what would happen if they stood up and fought the ADF loud and went to court, or just said, 'We hear your concerns, and we'll think about them, but here's what we do and why we do it.' ... Governor's School may not go through the legislature next year, and there may be no Governor's School. But there's no point in having a Governor's School that's just Governor's School in name, that doesn't reflect the stated values and academic goals of the Governor's School."
Jessica McDonald, a 2007 Governor's School East alumna, wrote her senior thesis on the controversy. She said in an interview with the Indy that Governor's School is "about being exposed to as many ideas as possible, and then you have to make your own conclusions."
"With that in mind, I think it's fine to talk about sexuality," McDonald said. "They weren't endorsing it, or trying to turn people gay or anything. That's just a ridiculous idea. Governor's School is about thinking and new ideas. If you limit that, then you're limiting the experiences of everyone who attends Governor's School."