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A national award, won very quietly in Erie

Elementary school principal issues gag order

Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

ERIE – The Erie Elementary School counselor who unsuccessfully pushed for a diversity curriculum to include the gay and lesbian community will receive a national honor next week for his work.

On Monday, Matthew Beck, 35, will pick up the award in New York. In June, he will go to the governor’s mansion as part of a state event to honor top teachers.

The reaction of the Erie school district?

“There isn’t any reaction to this award,” Superintendent Brad Cox said. “We are proud of all of our teachers and the recognition they get from outside organizations.”

Last week, the elementary school’s principal, Tricia Bianchetta, sent an email telling staff they were not allowed to discuss Beck’s award with students.

Bianchetta referred questions about her email to Cox, who said he was consulted before the principal sent it.

This email is tied to a school board decision last year to ban the use of “The Family Book” and unrelated lessons written by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The book includes a sentence that upset some parents: “Some families have two moms or two dads.”

Earlier this month, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network announced that Beck was its 2013 Educator of the Year. The group says Beck has enriched his school district by ensuring that all students, particularly ones who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, are safe from bullying and harassment.

In May 2012, the board voted 5-2 against using the book and other materials, dismissing the recommendation of a district-formed committee that favored them. Beck had presented the materials to the committee.

A month after the board’s decision, about 130 people attended a board meeting where members planned another discussion of the issue, which generated a lot of debate in this town of 1,602 people. About half the audience appeared to support the decision; the other half didn’t.

At the time, board President Charlie Brown disagreed with the use of the word “ban” associated with the board’s decision. The district, he said, merely decided to use different materials.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Cox agreed.

“To me, it’s not a ban,” he said. “If a kid brought that book from home, he could.”

As for the board’s decision, Cox said, it was always an elementary school issue.

“It’s about what is and what isn’t appropriate for children,” he said.

Beck, however, said if a district doesn’t allow a book, that could be considered a ban.

In an after-school interview in his office, Beck said he was trying to stay positive. He said the district has loosened its grip on its ban on the network’s materials, although he said he was not allowed to keep “The Family Book” in his office.

Beck said his proudest moment came this year when Erie Elementary School celebrated National No Name Calling Week. The national event was created, in part, by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

“Diverse families exist,” he said. “They exist in our community. What message does that send to students when we can’t acknowledge that their families exist? The mission is to teach kids that it’s OK to be different.”

Next week, Beck will go to New York to receive his award at a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network event. At the same function, Jason Collins, the professional basketball player who recently became the first active U.S. athlete in a major sport to come out publicly as gay, will accept a Courage award.

Beck’s alma mater, Western Illinois University, issued a news release this week to recognize his award.

“He consistently uses what is best for children as his compass in developing and implementing prevention programming and interventions for his students,” Holly Nikels, an associate professor in counselor education at Western Illinois, said in the release.

Cox said he wasn’t aware of any plans to recognize Beck at a school board meeting.

Board member Joe Weaver, who voted for using “The Family Book,” said he congratulated Beck.

“I was very impressed,” he said.

Other Erie school board members with listed phone numbers couldn’t be reached for comment.

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