Hundreds of schools reacted to accusations that the annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day is part of the Southern Poverty Law Center's "nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools."
But schools were split: Many quickly dropped their association with the event designed to promote tolerance, while others decided to sign on.
The characterization of the event, lobbed at the Montgomery, Ala.-based SPLC by the conservative American Family Association, takes aim at an 11-year-old program designed to "break down the walls between groups of kids," said Maureen Costello, director of the SPLC's Teaching Tolerance arm.
The AFA, based in Tupelo, Miss., posted messages on its website and sent emails about the event earlier this month, calling SPLC a "homosexual activist group," that had listed schools on a map of participants without authorization. "'Mix It Up' day is an entry-level 'diversity' program designed specifically by SPLC to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools, including elementary and junior high schools," the AFA's message said.
In response, Costello said she heard from hundreds of schools that decided not to be officially associated with the event, some of which were inundated by calls from upset parents, and hundreds more that said they wanted to a participate. The result was that about the same number of schools, 2,500 nationwide, plan to officially take part in the Oct. 30 event.
"There is no winning ... in opposing parents. I understand that completely," she said. "On the other hand, it's very gratifying to hear from principals 'We love this'."
One school in Oklahoma, for example, already hosted its event despite the AFA email.
"I'm caught in the middle because I want to protect the kid, whether he's a homosexual or he's not a homosexual. It doesn't matter what they're being singled out for or being bullied for or being picked on for. I want to do whatever I can to resolve that and try to change those mores here at school," Tahlequah Middle School Preventionist Fred Poteete told the Tahlequah Daily Press.
The Mix It Up event was created after teacher Beverly Daniel Tatum's book "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" was published in 1997.
How schools encourage students to get to know other students is totally up to schools, which all deal with divisions between students based on race, academic achievement, socioeconomic status, whether they have disabilities—and sexual orientation.
"We do stand for equal rights of LGBT students," Costello said. "They cannot be beaten or bullied in school. The whole purpose of the day was simply to get people to break through that fear in one single day; recognizing in one day it's not actually scary. And maybe that would set up some kind of reflection before the next time you label someone and put them in a box."
The 40-year-old Southern Poverty Law Center was created specifically to combat hate and bigotry. It has named the American Family Association has been named a hate group for its anti-gay ideology.
On a related note, Teach for America, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, and the Trevor Project have partnered on a project that asks teachers to pledge to make their classrooms Safe and Affirming For Everyone. By signing the SAFE pledge, teachers can access resources including posters for their classrooms, activities, and other materials.
The partnership was announced last week, on National Coming Out Day.
"There is no path to educational equity that doesn't include all of us assuming responsibility for ensuring our classrooms are safe and affirming places for every student," said Eric Scroggins, executive vice president of growth, development, and partnerships at Teach For America, in a written statement. "This is particularly true of students who identify as or are perceived to be LGBT."