Updated 11:55 a.m. April 14 with comments from MassResistance — Parents and students say an organization identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center is involving itself in a school district in west St. Louis County.
MassResistance Missouri opposes the Parkway School Districts’ sex-education curriculum, which includes lessons about contraception, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Parkway recently stopped using sex-ed instructors from ThriVe, a religious organization under scrutiny for teaching what some say is shame-based lessons in several area public schools, pending a review. MassResistance Missouri advocates on ThriVe’s behalf on its website.
Parkway Central sophomore Andrew Bennett said he brought MassResistance to the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center because the group was attacking LGBTQ students on social media. A photo of Bennett is posted on MassResistance’s national website alongside an article painting the 16-year-old in a negative light.
“They don’t want LGBT students to be in schools. They don’t think that they should have a voice. But the problem is we do have a voice,” said Bennett, who spoke in support of the district’s new sex education curriculum during school board meetings.
Bennett said when he saw his photo on the MassResistance website, he was shocked.
“At the meeting that they took that (photo), I actually came up and shook their hand to show respect, and it comes down to I wasn’t shown respect from them. I was very concerned about why a group of parents would be going after youth just like their children. It made me very worried for my friends and for my safety and for my friends’ safety. And it made me worried for the safety of Parkway,” Bennett said.
MassResistance Missouri did not return requests for comment. Its website has no contact information, and attempts to reach out on Twitter were unanswered.
But the president of the national MassResistance organization, Brian Camenker, said parents in the Parkway district reached out to him for help preventing the new sex education curriculum from being adopted.
“The Parkway school district started to impose this sexuality curriculum which a lot of parents found very disturbing, very radical,” Camenker said. “And they're putting it into the elementary school through the high school.”
He said the parents affiliated with MassResistance tried to work with the school, but the school administration and some activists were “hostile” to MassResistance Missouri’s efforts to keep lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity out of Parkway.
Parkway’s elementary sex education lesson plans for grades K-5 teach parts of the body and that certain parts shouldn’t be touched by other people.
A recent post on MassResistance Missouri’s website accuses the Southern Poverty Law Center of labeling their organization a hate group because it has conservative values. And Camenker said MassResistance and MassResistance Missouri’s inclusion on the hate group list was “absurd.”
Citing 2014 articles from conservative news websites, Cemenker said the FBI has distanced itself from the Southern Poverty Law Center because the hate group list is “basically a fundraising tactic.” But the FBI’s website lists the Southern Poverty Law Center as a resource when investigating hate crimes.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s website said it does not add groups to its anti-LGBT hate group list for believing homosexuality is a sin or for advocating against same-sex marriage. That designation is reserved for groups that use crude names and distribute derogatory information.
The MassResistance Missouri blog post was written in response to school board candidate Matt Eckerle, who drew attention to the designation of MassResistance as a hate group. Eckerle, who wasn’t elected, said the group used a photo of his young children to smear his campaign.
“At first I blamed myself,” said Eckerle, “This is not the kind of website you want your children’s pictures up on.”
“Then I kicked into action,” he added.
The photo of Eckerle’s children is no longer up on the organization’s website. But he said the tactic was almost enough to make him drop out of the school board race.
“I have pretty thick skin, but when this group goes after my family, that gives me a lot of pause,” Eckerle said.
After discussions with other parents and community members, Eckerle said he can see why it might be better to call the actions of MassResistance Missouri — which he also says is a group of parents in the school system, though St. Louis Public Radio could not independently verify — hateful.
“What I want to be careful about is condemning a group of people as terrible people,” he said, “because the goal should not be to expunge people from your community. The goal should be to stop the behavior that is unacceptable.”
Parkway spokeswoman Cathy Kelly said the district remains committed to its more inclusive sex-education curriculum.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.