A "civil rights team" project that teaches West Virginia students to recognize and stop hate in the hallways is facing criticism from opponents who call the program little more than a law enforcement activity instructing kids on how to become politically correct thought police.
The project — the result of a 1997 brainstorming session between former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and the National Association of Attorneys Generals, and based on a model spearheaded by the state of Maine — trains students organized into groups to act as role models against bullying and harassment at school.
Architects of the plans in Maine, Massachusetts and West Virginia say peer leaders bring attention to the problems of discriminatory threats and violence.
But critics warn that students are trained to be informants working to create a pro-homosexual, anti-religious environment.
"Education belongs in the Department of Education, not in the AG’s office," said Kevin McCoy, head of the West Virginia Family Foundation, a Christian-based advocacy group.
McCoy accused the program of "indoctrinating students and re-ordering society."
"It is my position that the attorney general’s office has developed a formidable law enforcement apparatus here," he said.
In 1996, Maine began the Civil Rights Teams Project in 18 middle and high schools. It now serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade in 188 schools across the state, according to Thomas Harnett, assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement in Maine.
Developed after the state attorney general's office learned that many of the reported hate crimes each year came from young people and were mostly based on race and sexual orientation, the program teaches students and faculty to recognize statutory hate crimes such as violence, threats, and property damage as a result of race, gender, religion, sexuality, ethnicity, physical and mental ability.
"What we do is teach children how to react to inappropriate behavior," said Harnett, who explained that students are encouraged to become role models to other kids and to counsel others to report to a "responsible adult" if harassment gets out of hand.
"Looking at schools where we have had teams in for the last four or five years, when we go there and talk to students and teachers, they talk about palpable changes in the atmosphere, in the way that students talk and act towards one another," he added, disputing that the program is "creating a cadre of junior law enforcers."
But critics of the West Virginia program doubt that the project does anything more than create hallway moles.
"Your deputizing a few students to maintain a certain environment," said Dick Carpenter, an education policy analyst with Focus on the Family, based in Colorado.
"Designating students to be the Barney Fife of their school undermines the traditional mission," he said, referring to the bumbling and overzealous deputy of the Andy Griffith Show.
Carpenter said that there are numerous education-based programs in schools that don’t require students to become "informants."
But those programs also have critics who say most "diversity" and "sensitivity" training endeavors in schools today include ultra-liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, and leave no room for religious expression that might differ from their views on homosexuality.
Paul Sheridan, head of the attorney general's project in West Virginia, said 90 percent of what the student teams do, including class presentations and speaker sponsorship, goes to making safer communities.
"They learn a tremendous amount about citizenship, leadership and making a democratic society work," Sheridan said.
Sheridan said that if a student were being bullied for "unpopular religious beliefs," the same rules of protection would apply.
"Any program that empowers children to understand and recognize hate and empower them to stand up to it is a significant part of the education system," added Caryl Stern, corporate executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League and first director of A World of Difference, which teaches tolerance programs in schools.