US fundamentalists to picket primary

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Baptist extremists target `fag-infested' London school that taught pupils about homosexuality

A group of US Christian fundamentalists, labelled by the media "the most hated family in America", are set to picket teachers who ran lessons about gay relationships at a north-east London primary.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, are planning to travel thousands of miles to Leytonstone next week after hearing of lessons taught as part of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) history month.

The church became known in this country after a Louis Theroux TV documentary in 2007 profiled the Phelps family, who lead the Westboro church. Members picket the funerals of US soldiers because they regard the military as servants of a government that permits homosexuality.

But defiant teachers at George Tomlinson School are unapologetic about their work. They say their teaching has virtually eliminated homophobic bullying.

Similar lessons have run for two years. A small number of parents kept their children at home during the relevant month. Their non-attendance was classed as unauthorised absence.

Announcing the plans to picket on its website, the Westboro church calls George Tomlinson School "faginfested" (sic) and says the visit is "another warning to the UK to repent of their manifold sins of the flesh or perish".

"God hates the UK and the Tomlinson School fag tyranny, where conscientious parents face religious persecution for withdrawing their children from lessons on lying fag so-called history," it continues.

Mandy Stewart, head of George Tomlinson, believes other schools should follow her example and incorporate resources and discussions about homosexual relationships into lessons. "In 2006, we had at least one or two cases a week of children being in detention for cases involving homophobic bullying, and in most cases children didn't understand the impact of what they were saying - for example, we would see boys calling each other lesbians," Ms Stewart said.

"Now we hardly see any of that type of bullying. We are not trying to destroy innocence - just empower children and make them all feel involved. You cannot start developing children's ability to respect people who are different at age 11 or 12.

"Why should children who come from different backgrounds not feel included or respected."

Since details of the lessons, and the possible punishment of parents who kept their children at home, appeared in a national newspaper, heads from across the country have contacted Ms Stewart to ask how they can run similar projects.

She started working with Tacade, a not-for-profit organisation specialising in personal, social, health and citizenship education, to plan lessons and new resources in 2007. The new curriculum and zero- tolerance approach to bullying was launched in the same year after extensive staff training.

Ms Stewart said parents were regularly consulted and have been in favour of the approach, but she believes a small group became concerned recently because the lessons were part of LGBT month.

Waltham Forest council has supported the work at George Tomlinson, as have other heads in the area. Nearby Leytonstone High found itself in the media spotlight recently when pupils staged a play called Romeo and Julian, a version of Shakespeare featuring a homosexual relationship, including a romantic kiss between the two male leads.

One student involved, Catherine Louden, 16, said: "Lessons like this were not taught in primary school when I was there. What's happening shouldn't be an issue.

"We just thought this was something which needed to be done. Lots of people used the word `gay' around school, and I'm sure there are many pupils who are frightened to come out."

The pupils are now planning to run workshops about the play in local primaries.

Luke Burton, Leytonstone's headteacher, said: "We thought this could be a potentially explosive and difficult situation, so we asked for opinions in our newsletter. What it's important to remember is that this was student- driven."

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