Portsmouth Rep's threat to cut school funding over anti-bullying group sparks furor

A comment on a news story by Portsmouth's freshman Rep Dan Gordon (R-71) reverberated around the state yesterday, being picked up by Providence media and NPR, and drawing criticism from readers and political figures.

At issue was a three-sentence comment posted Monday night on a Tiverton Patch story about a new group to promote tolerance, the Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), being formed at Tiverton High School. The GSA was formed by a student, Cynda Martin, with the full support of the school committee, according to reporting in Patch.

But in the comments section following the article, Rep. Gordon threatened the community with funding cuts over the program. "This is why if I have anything to say about it," he wrote, "Tiverton will lose funding to local charter schools." He continued, "If sexual meet-up groups are being promoted in our schools rather than improving test scores, that school is failing. Is it really more important for our children to get 'sexed-up', than learning advanced math?"

Rep. Gordon comment on Patch
Rep. Dan Gordon's comment on Tiverton Patch. Reproduced for the purpose of comment and criticism, which falls squarely under Fair Use.

The comment was removed from Patch for a time yesterday after a number of readers flagged it as inappropriate, regional editor Scott Pickering said in a post. But it reappeared last night, and Gordon added a comment, "I stand by what I said." Then he attempted to turn the furor into publicity for an appearance on a local radio talk show this morning, before criticizing his interlocutors for their grammar and punctuation, arguing that this supported his argument. "One wants this individual working for their company? Punctuation, etc??? My point proven, exactly," Gordon posted.

As of this morning, there were over 100 comments on the Patch article, with a strong majority differing with Gordon. Even Tiverton's conservative blogger Justin Katz weighed in, arguing that, "It would be more of a distraction from academics to actively prevent students from forming such groups," and reminding Gordon that the students were community members and, "You're their representative, too."

Rep. Gordon did not respond to a request for comment from harddeadlines.

He did, however, defend his remarks to a reporter with the RI NPR station, WRNI, where he said, "I don't think there would be much of a problem with bullying if students weren’t flaunting their sexuality in school."

Local political figures offered responses to Gordon's statements.

George Alzaibak, who ran against Gordon for the District 71 seat last November, said in an e-mail that he didn't want to turn attention away from the real issue, the work that student Cynda Martin had done. He pointed reporters to a post on Facebook, where he said, "As a local resident and a father of three girls I am very proud of you and i support you on your project [...] as a person who judges senior projects at Tiverton high, I know the amount off work it takes. Thanks to you for giving your friends a place and group to turn to."

Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee chair Len Katzman said, "Mr. Gordon's comment shows his shockingly profound ignorance about Gay-Straight Alliance groups. The mission of GSAs is to reduce all bullying and violence in schools and to improve the school learning environment for all students, regardless of sexual orientation. In fact, the very first GSA in the country was started by a straight high school student. These facts can be learned by anyone willing to spend five minutes looking them up. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death of high school age kids, but Mr. Gordon's comment shows he has spent no time leaning about efforts to address this crisis. Mr. Gordon is doing a very poor job for the people of Tiverton and Portsmouth when he spouts inflammatory nonsense and threatens to de-fund a community's school. Rhode Islanders of all political stripes deserve better."

Portsmouth Republican Town Committee chair Jeff Plumb did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Rep Jay Edwards (D-70) called Gordon's comments "offensive" and "ludicrous." "In the past few days," said Edwards, "I have received numerous emails from THS students, parents and constituents who are outraged by his insulting comments. At the very best, I consider Rep Gordon to be misinformed. To accuse students who are trying to promote acceptance of getting “sexed-up” at school and to suggest that the alliance has any impact on student test scores is inflammatory and downright immature.

"It is disheartening that a state representative has shown such ignorance to social and educational realities. Perhaps he needs to be reminded that he represents all residents in his district- not just those who conform to his views. I am appalled that Rep Gordon threatened to cut school funding -- in these dire economic times -- simply because he disagrees with an anti-bullying group organized by children. The residents of Tiverton certainly deserve better."

And in a statement yesterday, RI state Democratic Party Chair Ed Pacheco denounced Gordon's comments.

"His blatant ignorance toward GSA -- a group which promotes education, diversity and peer support -- is deplorable. Diversity is what strengthens our communities and to deny students the opportunity to meet in their school, a place where they should always feel safe, is unacceptable. Further, to use his position as state representative and threaten school funding is outrageous. Gordon, through his ignorance, is doing a gross disservice to his community by not representing all members of his constituency."

Full disclosure: I am a member and officer of the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee, and I actively supported George Alzaibak in 2010. And you know what? I do not regret it.