A group of “concerned citizens” has condemned the showing of a documentary about the 2008 murder of a gay boy to students at two Waco Independent School District schools participating in Baylor University’s Freedom Schools program.

The group Speak Up TX, formed during this year’s legislative session, referred to itself as “concerned citizens” and expressed dismay during a Transformation Waco board meeting Tuesday that children as young as 11 years old were shown the HBO documentary “Valentine Road,” group President Anne Newman said.

More than 170 students at Indian Spring Middle School and J.H. Hines Elementary School participated in the Freedom Schools program this summer, according to a Baylor press release. Both schools are part of Transformation Waco, the in-district charter system created by Prosper Waco and Waco ISD.

Baylor Freedom Schools is a partnership between the Baylor School of Education, Waco ISD, Transformation Waco, Prosper Waco and the city.

“Freedom Schools literacy program exposes students to culturally relevant books for maximum student engagement and the prevention of summer learning loss,” the press release states.

Freedom Schools also offers education in social action, character building and science, technology, engineering, art and math activities. Called “scholars,” the Freedom Schools students created a project for the National Day of Social Action focusing on gun violence and awareness that included a march against gun violence in downtown Waco last week.

The last day of the program this summer is Friday.

“When parents enroll their children in a summer literacy program, it’s likely that they don’t expect them to see a film about the shooting death of a middle school student, learn to be ‘agents of change’ for a political agenda, or to be indoctrinated with ‘tolerance’ curriculum from the disreputable Southern Poverty Law Center,” Newman said at the meeting.

Newman does not live in Waco. She said she was contacted by Freedom Schools staff members who expressed concerns.

It is also unclear why Newman mentioned the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Freedom Schools program does not follow its “Teaching Tolerance” curriculum, according to the Freedom Schools website.

The “Valentine Road” documentary tells the factual story of the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Larry King by 14-year-old Brandon McInerney. On Feb. 12, 2008, Brandon took a gun from his sweatshirt pocket and shot Larry in the back of the head in the computer lab of E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard, California, television critic Mary McNamara wrote in a Los Angeles Times review in 2013.

Larry died two days later.

“In this case, the ‘why’ seemed horrifying simple. Larry had recently become more open about his sexuality and gender identity; he had begun wearing makeup and women’s high heels to school. Cross-dressing was not common at Green, nor were openly gay students,” McNamara wrote. “Larry, small for his age, multiracial and increasingly flirtatious with other boys, was already a target for teasing. As Valentine’s Day neared, Larry approached Brandon as he played basketball with his friends and asked Brandon to be his valentine. Brandon shot him the next day.”

Newman said Larry “humiliated” Brandon in front of his friends by asking him to be his valentine and Brandon shot him twice in the back of the head. She said she has seen the documentary.

“The film would be troubling enough without the added controversial issue of transgenderism,” she said. “I am encouraging you to establish criteria for materials used in the literacy program that include a movie policy that requires parental consent and excludes human sexuality issues, such as LGBT. Full disclosure of program materials should be provided to parents, not just summaries.”

Newman suggested curricula focusing on “uplifting” figures such as George Washington Carver and Ben Carson.

Parents’ views

April Joiner’s son attends the Freedom Schools program and told his mother he saw the documentary. She said they discussed the documentary and that she explained to him that it is not right to belittle or tease other people because they are different.

“We just need to treat everybody with the same respect,” she said.

Joiner said she did not have a problem with her son viewing the documentary during the summer program because it provided her an opportunity to talk to her son about reality.

“We see stuff like that every day,” she said. “We need to teach them. They need to know because if not, they’re going to see it elsewhere.”

Transformation Waco CEO Robin McDurham said she read about parental concerns over the viewing of the documentary on Facebook and began reaching out to parents. Normally, the parents would have been notified their children would be seeing the documentary and have the chance to opt their children out of seeing it, but a sewage problem at Indian Spring Middle School forced the weekly parent meeting to be canceled, she said.

McDurham said parents had mixed reactions, with some saying it opened a line of communication with their children and others wishing they had been informed about the viewing beforehand.

Baylor University spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said in a statement that the “incident” was an “aberration” and that “new processes are now in place” to ensure the learning opportunities students receive in the Freedom Schools program are age-appropriate.

“The students range in age from 11-13, and no films will be shown rated PG-13 or higher from this point forward,” Fogleman said. “Baylor has taken action to include personnel changes as part of the program.”

The HBO website indicates the documentary has a TV-14 rating.

The university also has added measures that include written descriptions of the curriculum being sent home each week to every family, in addition to the mandatory weekly parent meeting, Fogleman said. Parents may opt their children out of any piece of the curriculum. In the future, Freedom Schools will provide a complete syllabus of activities for parents at the mandatory parent orientation before the program starts.

“The university takes great care in providing educational and enriching programming for these students, and our utmost priority is ensuring a safe and healthy educational environment for all,” she said.

McDurham said she is grateful Baylor responded so quickly to the parents’ concerns.

“History is all about not repeating the same mistakes. We just have to make sure the material is age-appropriate,” she said. “There is a way to help children find their voice.”

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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