Two weeks ago, the New York Times published a story about a conservative evangelical group’s attempts to shut down Mix it Up at Lunch Day, an anti-bullying effort where school kids are encouraged to eat with and get to know classmates they don’t typically hang out with.
Calling the 11-year-old project “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools,” the American Family Association (AFA) urged parents to keep their kids home Oct. 30 and to demand their schools drop the program. The group has described anti-bullying efforts as “thinly veiled” attempts to “promote the homosexual agenda.”
Talk about a misfire. Almost immediately, the phone on Maureen Costello’s desk at Teaching Tolerance, the project that came up with the idea, started ringing with calls from teachers and schools administrators asking to participate. A number of former participants also called to say they still planned to hold the activity.
Community of Saints Regional Catholic School in West St. Paul signed up the day after the Times story ran. Also new to the program are St. Paul Public Schools’ Capitol Hill Magnet/Rondo, Seward Montessori in Minneapolis and Excell Academy for Higher Learning in Brooklyn Park.
High participation here
Tuesday, students in at least 52 Minnesota schools formally participating will be invited to branch out at lunch, as will pupils in an unknown number of other schools that have taken up the idea on their own. Twin Cities school are among Mix it Up’s top participants, according to organizers.
The effort’s sponsor, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently listed the AFA as a hate group; the AFA then called the civil-rights organization a hate group. Teaching Tolerance is an SPLC program.
According to the Times report, about 200 schools had canceled the event, although it wasn’t clear it was in response to the AFA’s push. “Of 20 schools that had canceled and were contacted by The New York Times, only one chose to comment,” the paper reported.
MinnPost’s efforts to reach administrators at two parochial schools rumored to have canceled here were fruitless. Educators at some of the schools holding the event were unaware of the controversy.
Tablecloths and flowers
At Edina’s South View Middle School, which has held the event for several years, students will find lunchroom tables laid with tablecloths and flowers and music playing. When they go through the line, kids will be given a sticker with a randomly assigned table number.
There they will find table tents suggesting starter questions designed to get them to discover things they have in common, according to Dean of Students Tami Jo Cook. Staff will bus lunch trays in an effort to get kids to linger over the conversations.
“Our purpose is intentionally to get people to cross boundaries,” said Cook. “It feels like a very respectful day in the lunchroom. It seems to elevate behavior.”
Wayzata West Middle School will observe the day for the third time, but for the first time on the actual date suggested, according to Counselor Jana Sykora. The actual event will look a lot like Edina’s South View, although staff tinkers every year in response to student feedback.
Positive impact on individual students
More than on school climate, the event has had a positive impact on individual students who struggle socially, Sykora said. “I had one student in the sixth grade last year tell me she was having a hard time making friends, and she met two new people at lunch,” she said.
This year, 15 volunteers from the district high school will be in attendance to help with ice-breaking activities and students who are highly anxious about crossing clique lines will get quiet, personal encouragement beforehand.
“Music lightens everyone up and makes everything more fun,” she said.
Rumors that unnamed local Catholic schools were told to cancel the event are baseless, said Jim Accurso, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Any such instruction would come from the parishes that operate the schools, he said, and he could find no reports of cancellations.
But beyond that, the archdiocese sees no connection between a positive school-climate event and the homosexual agenda asserted by other groups, Accurso said.
Liberty Counsel agrees with AFA
The AFA has no Minnesota affiliate, but its critique of Mix it Up Day is shared by Liberty Counsel, a group that is active here, most notably in its defense of the Child Evangelism Fellowships’ suits to win access to after-school programs for the religious Good News Clubs.
Liberty Counsel Director of Cultural Affairs Matt Barber and General Counsel Stephen Crampton can be heard in news segments available online describing the event as a day “where boys can wear girls clothes [or] pretend to be homosexual.” Crampton was chief counsel of the AFA until 2007.
As of last spring, Good News groups were meeting in seven metro-area districts, according to local leaders, including Minneapolis, where CEF and Liberty Counsel recently won a federal court order allowing a club at Jenny Lind elementary to continue to use school resources.