The Misrepresentation of the “Forced Lesbian Kiss” News Story from Red Hook, NY

Red Hook SchoolsHere at the DATE SAFE Project, teaching “Asking First” and respecting boundaries is one of our main missions. While the Peer Educators who recently taught an “Asking First” scene to middle school students in Red Hook, NY were not affiliated with nor licensed by The DATE SAFE Project, we want to fully discuss what has happened with this news story.

Recently, several media outlets published a story referring to a “Forced Lesbian Kiss” in a middle school classroom in Red Hook, NY. The news coverage implied students in the classroom were forced to ask each other for a “lesbian kiss” (that is the wording cited in the news stories). The classroom discussion was lead by Peer Educators from nearby Bard College.

Soon, we heard that our organization was being referenced as a source of the material the school relied on for this classroom session. People were asking us, “Are you aware someone is inappropriately referencing the ‘Asking First’ scene from The DATE SAFE Project’s Curriculum in the classroom?” We began doing research by directly talking with both educational institutions involved: Bard College and Dr. Katie Zahedi, the Principal at the middle school in Red Hook, NY.

We began by asking the following questions:

  1. What lessons were being taught in the classroom?
  2. Is the school stating that the Peer Educators were licensed by The DATE SAFE Project or that our specific curriculum was being used? Yes, we were checking to see how we were being referenced.

Dr. Zahedi made it clear from the start of our conversation that the news reports were very different from what actually occurred in the classroom. Both her and the school district’s Superintendent, Paul Finch, replied to the original reporter who published the story referring to a “lesbian kiss” being taught. Almost all of the information Dr. Zahedi and the Superintendent Finch provided the reporter was left OUT of the story the reporter published. To be transparent, the website for Red Hook School System has posted the letter Superintendent Finch sent the reporter. The letter clearly states:

“These sessions were designed by the building leadership in an effort to have eighth graders treat each other with respect and to develop in our young adolescents an appreciation for personal dignity. To suggest that we would condone or promote sexual activity among teenagers is absurd. It is equally absurd to suggest that an activity, designed to have young women feel more confident saying no to unwanted advances from boys, is in some way promoting a lesbian lifestyle. It is my understanding that the role playing activity is part of a program supported by conservatives such as Laura Bush.”

The Poughkeepsie Journal reports superintendent of Red Hook Central School District Paul Finch saying workshops like these are required under New York’s Dignity for All Students Act, which states that instruction in “civility, citizenship and character” would include “concepts of tolerance, respect for others and dignity.” Topics for this would include race, nationality, religion, weight, sexual orientation and gender identity, among others. (**This paragraph is from an article posted here).

In addition, on the Red Hook School System’s website, the school system shared the discussion in the classroom was focused on:

Cultural stereotypes related to gender and gender identity, positive strategies for conflict resolution, and issues related to personal consent in relationships. All of these topics support our efforts to create a school environment that is free from discrimination, harassment, and bullying.

None of this information was included in the initial story posted online referring to students and a “lesbian kiss.”

In my conversation with Dr. Zahedi, she shared that language used in the news reporting was erroneous. The Peer Educators from Bard College did NOT reference a “Lesbian Kiss.” The Peer Educators did NOT teach the boys “How to Spot a Slut” as stated in online news outlets.

What actually happened? When the males and females were separated, the peer educators talked to the female students about always having the right to say, “No” to intimacy. You deserve to always have a choice and be asked first (hopefully a point every parent agrees with). At that point, the peer educators did a quick role-play with the classroom addressing “Asking for a Kiss.” Never did the educators refer to that moment as a “lesbian kiss.” The phrase “Lesbian Kiss” was language used by either the reporter and/or the family who reported this as a story to Fox News – NOT as part of the classroom discussion.

In the session with the boys, the conversation included how harmful such words as “slut” can be and the importance of not “slut shaming.” If you work in the field of reducing sexual violence, you know how frequently people in our society use “Slut Shaming” to inappropriately blame survivors of sexual assault.

“Asking First” and The DATE SAFE Project
You may be wondering, “Mike, the role-playing scene does sound somewhat based on what you teach in the ‘Can I Kiss You?’ School Assemblies?” Bard College shared with us that the two Peer Educators who lead the classroom session did previously attend a “Can I Kiss You?” live presentation facilitated by me at SUNY-New Paltz.  In each “Can I Kiss You?” Show, I teach the importance of “Asking First” before anyone ever touches another person sexually or intimately. The representative from Bard College shared that the students did want to share some of the same messages with the local students.

We, the DATE SAFE Project, are HONORED to know the two Bard College students were inspired by our “Can I Kiss You?” Show and wanted to spread those same lessons with middle school students in their local community. You have two caring college students working hard to help our youth have a greater respect for themselves, their peers, and each other boundaries. Awesome!  The students never said they were affiliated with us and thus did not misrepresent themselves at any time.

Dr. Zahedi has apologized to us for a reference she made in an online article about the students attending a training conducted by The DATE SAFE Project. She is aware the “Can I Kiss You?” Show at SUNY-New Paltz that the Bard students attended is not the formal training we provide for individuals to present the “Can I Kiss You?” program in their local schools.

Does the DATE SAFE Project provide formal training opportunities for people to become licensed to present the program in their local middle schools and high schools? Yes. The training includes many nuances which can dramatically impact how people react to specific situations in a role-play. Bard College did inquiry into how a student can become a Licensed Presenter of the K12 “Can I Kiss You?” Program for future work in local schools (requires attending 2-Day Training).

As to the Superintendent Finch’s comment about the role-play scene from the classroom based on a program supported by conservatives, we do believe he was referring to the “Can I Kiss You?” version of the “Asking First” role-play scene (based on conversations we had Dr. Zahedi). The “Can I Kiss You?” program is brought into schools of all political and religious belief systems – ranging from more liberal communities to very strict faith-based institutions. For instance, we teach the respect of boundaries to middle school students in the Milwaukee, WI Catholic Archdiocese. We believe Superintendent Finch’s reference specific to Laura Bush is referring to a letter we received from Laura Bush many years ago thanking me for our work.

I want to personally thank Bard College and Dr. Zahedi for taking the time to talk with me earlier today. Dr. Zahedi stated she would like to find a way to bring me to her school in the future to present the “Can I Kiss You?” program to their students. Every day we get the opportunity to share “How-To” skills for treating each other with respect we are thrilled to so!!

THE GOOD THAT HAPPENED

Are mistakes going to happen the first time an educational program is presented? Yes. The key is the educators and administrators work together to make the program as effective and appropriate as possible for the future. Dr. Zahedi has assured us everyone is committed to that same goal.

Caring educators, administrators, and local college peer educators in Red Hook, NY worked together to bring their students a program to help teach respect of their peers, themselves, and their boundaries. Every middle school student deserves to be TAUGHT that he/she always has the RIGHT to be given a choice BEFORE anyone touches him/her sexually. This is a LEGAL RIGHT and thus it is a school’s responsibility to teach such legal rights (just as they teach the legal age of driving, drinking, etc…).

Parents, please ask yourself, “Is my school teaching my middle school and high school students that they ALWAYS should be given a choice before anyone touches them sexually or intimately? Are they teaching my child that he/she should be asked first before anything happens?” Common sense tells you that if more students were “Asking First,” a lot less sexual activity would be occurring because most students are not ready to talk openly, honestly, and fully respect each other’s boundaries.

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