Film challenges school system

by Heather Kofke-Egger | 10/12/99 5:00am

What subjects should be taught in school and what should be left for parents has always been a topic of debate in the American public school system--especially when those subjects involve moral judgements and personal values.

Perhaps no better example of this can be found today than the debate over teaching children about homosexuality in schools, especially public schools.

"It's Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in School," which will play at the Loew Theater tonight at 7:30 p.m., is a documentary that broaches this subject with commendable honesty and integrity as well as a sense of humor.

This special screening of "It's Elementary" will be introduced by its producer, Helen Cohen, and feature a panel discussion with local teens and teachers following the film. The event is part of National Coming Out month activities.

Originally produced for public television and for educators, this award-winning documentary's fame has spread beyond PBS, mostly due to the opposition it has met from the religious right.

Consisting of footage from six elementary and middle schools and including students from first to eighth grade, the film takes a look at what teachers are doing in their classrooms to confront gay issues. The purpose, according to New Day Films, is to show how children are affected by anti-gay prejudice and to try to combat anti-gay feelings -- and maybe even violence--by teaching children appreciation of differences and tolerance.

Some members of the religious right, led by Teletubbie-hating-televangelist Gerry Falwell, don't agree with the film's message. They claim that by teaching tolerance for gays, the schools are condoning a homosexual lifestyle that they feel is immoral and wrong. The American Family Association goes so far as to call "It's Elementary" pro-homosexual propaganda, claiming that the film itself is the work of "those espousing hedonism."

The film has faced much opposition since it began airing on PBS in June. Many stations received requests to keep the film from showing or to at least also run the American Family Association's counter-video, "Suffer the Children."

No matter what one's view is on the issue, "It's Elementary" provides interesting insights into school-age children, their concerns and some approaches to dealing with those concerns. Although many argue that it should be up to parents to decide how issues surrounding homosexuality are taught to their children, this film shows how these issues surface in school and ways that some educators are addressing them.

Cohen, who played key research, financing and creative roles in the making of the film, will introduce it to the audience. Cohen's more recent work was producing and co-directing "Homes & Hands: Community Lands Trusts in Action" in collaboration with the Institute for Community Economics. She also co-produced "Wired For What," a PBS documentary about technology and education.

Cohen, who considers herself primarily an activist, sees film as "another medium to affect social and economic change."

A panel discussion will follow the screening.

"It's Elementary" shows tonight in the Loew Theater at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $5 for Dartmouth undergraduates and $6 for the general public.