Evesham parents who screened a controversial video shown to third graders in their district launched into emotional debate last night, at times screaming at each other across the cavernous gymnasium at Marlton Middle School.
The video, That's a Family!, depicts children describing their various families, including those headed by grandparents, single parents, adoptive parents and same-sex couples.
It was the segment on same-sex couples that drew the most ire from parents, who lined up a dozen deep to speak at a microphone - when they weren't shouting out their comments.
One woman stood at her seat and yelled, "They're 8 years old. They don't need to see homosexual people in the classroom."
Most of the parents who spoke opposed showing the video, which has been approved for the third-grade health curriculum in Evesham schools. So far, students in just one school - Van Zant Elementary - have seen it.
"They don't need to see stuff like this in school. We would rather have them learning reading, writing, math, art, history," said Mike Ricchini, who has a daughter at Van Zant. "Treat everyone with respect. . . . I'd rather see a video on teaching the Golden Rule."
The controversy was sparked last week by a news report on NBC10 citing complaints from a parent who asked to remain anonymous. School district administrators then set up last night's meeting so parents could watch the video, whose full title is That's a Family! A film for kids about family diversity.
Many parents said they had no advance warning about the content of the video - a point that school administrators conceded. Others called the video "adult material" and said lessons about diversity and tolerance should be taught in the home.
Others were less charitable, calling the video "disgusting."
Mary Anne Domico, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the district's intentions were "to really continue to teach respect for all children" - a goal, she said, met by the video.
Last week, after the NBC10 report, political groups on both sides of the issue quickly jumped into the fray, as did other Philadelphia media outlets. National talk-radio hosts Laura Ingraham and Michael Smerconish contacted the school district, as did the Fox News network.
The school district, meanwhile, noted that the video is used in other school districts and even has been screened at the Bush White House.
The state Department of Education, which offers training on incorporating the video into the classroom, said That's a Family! satisfies a section of the health curriculum that requires students to "identify different kinds of families and explain that families may differ for many reasons."
The vociferous opposition at last night's meeting, attended by several hundred people, seemed to catch school officials off-guard. Before the meeting, Jeanne Smith, the Evesham School District's public information officer, said she had heard few complaints from parents, despite the media attention. She said she expected few fireworks last night.
"It's been relatively quiet, locally," she said.
She said she expected more partisans on both sides to voice their opinions at the next school board meeting, on Feb. 13.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, the state's preeminent gay-rights group, initially weighed in on the Evesham controversy. But he said he subsequently turned down some 50 interview requests and offers to debate the issue.
"There's still no evidence that there's widespread upset by parents," he said yesterday, before the meeting. "This is the culture war that didn't exist."
Before screening the video last night, Domico told parents they weren't informed of the content of That's a Family! beforehand because the district "didn't anticipate the number of parents who would want to preview it."
"Hindsight is 20/20," she said. "I apologize for that."
To see clips from "That's a Family!" go to http://go.philly.com/familyvideoEndText