Portsmouth schools hear concerns over field trip

LFL(1)

LFL(1)PORTSMOUTH — A field trip scheduled Monday for seventh- and eight-grade middle school students is not being run by, nor is it financially benefiting, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the chairman of the School Committee said Tuesday night.

David Croston made his remarks in response to objections raised by two parents, John and Karen McDaid, who said the field trip could send the wrong message to students due to BSA’s national policy on sexual orientation and religion.

Monday’s field trip, known as Project C.O.P.E. (Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience) will be held at the Boy Scouts’ Champlin Scout Reservation in Cranston. Students will take part in numerous outdoor activities such as rope courses, and the program emphasis teamwork, problem-solving, self esteem and communication.

The Prince Charitable Trust is funding most of the trip through a $6,250 grant, with other costs covered by the middle school’s Parent Teacher Organization and a $5-per-student fee for transportation.

“BSA has a policy of denying membership to gay and atheist scouts and leaders,” Mr. McDaid stated in a letter to Supt. Barbara McGann, middle school Principal Joseph Amaral and teacher Alison Ernest. “A recent policy change will allow gay scouts, but the exclusion for leader and the nonreligious remains. Our students have the right to learn in an environment free from bias, including field trips.”

Mr. McDaid, who described himself as “an atheist and the proud father of an atheist,” refused to sign the permission slip for the trip that was sent home with his son.

He said the event violates the district’s own nondiscrimination rules and asked the committee to revisit its field trip policy, which he said only requires that such excursions “positively contribute to the academic curriculum.” The policy, he said, should include language that encourages deeper scrutiny of trips by administrators, and also exclude any organization with discriminatory practices.

Furthermore, he said, the school district should show its commitment to religious diversity and gender tolerance by speaking out whenever it recognizes discriminatory practices by organizations tied to student field trips.

“This could be a teachable moment,” Mr. McDaid said.

Schools deny violating policy

In his response, Mr. Croston said the school district is not violating any nondiscrimination policies. He said Project C.O.P.E. is run by Learning for Life (LFL), an affiliate organization but which has its own board of governors and a separate leadership.

“Learning for Life has a nondiscrimination police,” Mr. Croston said, noting that the program does not discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation.

LFL is national education program offering seven programs that focus on character development and career education, helping youth make ethical decisions that will help them achieve their full potential, according to literature provided by the organization.

After the meeting, Mr. Croston said he “would not impugn” BSA, which he called a “true partner” to schools. “I respect what Mr. McDaid says in every one of his requests to us. (However), the premise was, it was BSA that was receiving these funds. That is not the case,” he said.

As for Project C.O.P.E., Mr. Croston said, “This is a wonderful program that enhances the anti-bullying message at Portsmouth Middle School. We’ve gone to Project C.O.P.E for eight years and the Prince Charitable Trust has been more than generous.”

Reached after the meeting, Mr. McDaid said he may have been mistaken when he said the field trip was being run by BSA. However, materials provided to parents were not clear, and made no mention of Learning for Life, he said.

“In fact, if you go to the Learning for Life website where C.O.P.E. is described and click on ‘Contact us now,’ I think it’s still possible to be confused,” he said.

Mr. McDaid also pointed out that Learning for Life is a subsidiary of BSA.

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