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Local school field trip sparks controversy

Funds from a middle school’s field trip went to an organization affiliated with the Boy Scouts

A Portsmouth Middle School field trip last week has spurred tense debate on the issue of funds contributed by students' parents donated to a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts of America, a group that has previously received negative press for its discriminatory policies.

The school’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes attended a program Oct. 28 run by Learning for Life - Rhode Island, which aims to help “youth in kindergarten through 12th grade meet the challenges of growing up in today’s society by teaching character and good decision-making skills and then linking those skills to the real world,” according to its website.

While LFL does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, race or religion, it is a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts, a national organization that prohibits gay or atheist leaders. The program the students attended, Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience, includes physical obstacle courses designed to build character.

Portsmouth students brought home permission slips for the COPE field trip that asked for a $5 donation the week of Oct. 3. But on the slip, the school “bundled two different trips, (asking for) $25 combined for this field trip and another,” said blogger and parent John McDaid.

After some research, parents in the community found out that their donations were going to a COPE program established by the Boy Scouts and that LFL, which ran the COPE program, is subsidized by the Boy Scouts.

“We’ve never been supporters of the Boy Scouts,” McDaid said, citing the Scouts’ history of discrimination.

McDaid brought up the issue at a school meeting Oct. 8, asking “the school committee and the administration to consider (the) policy on field trips involving organizations which practice religious and gender discriminations.”

“Our students have the right to learn in an environment free from bias, including field trips,” he said.

In a blog post, McDaid ceded that COPE is actually run by LFL — not the Boy Scouts — but insisted that the school nonetheless collected donations “exceeding $2,000” to be given to a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts.

McDaid and two other families did not permit their children to attend the field trip under the suspicion that funds raised for the trip were being donated to a discriminatory cause.

It is not clear whether legal issues stem from the Portsmouth case, but the case has not spurred additional investigation.

Courtney Cahill, professor of law at Florida State University, wrote in an email to The Herald that she has a “hunch that the use of public funds to finance a trip sponsored by an organization which itself receives funds from the (Boy Scouts) at most poses an Establishment Clause issue under either the state constitution or federal constitution.”

Rhode Island law does not permit discrimination against sexual orientation in housing, employment, credit or public accommodations.

“To the best of our knowledge, no one, neither Scout nor Scouter … has been dismissed due to sexual orientation,” the Narragansett Council of Boy Scouts wrote in a statement.

Boy Scouts of America spokesperson David Preston said that even if COPE were run by the Narragansett Council of Boy Scouts, discrimination would not be a factor in the experience.

“The Narragansett Council was among the very first in the country to seek an open, thorough review of the national membership standards regarding sexual orientation,” Preston said.

Portsmouth parents and administrators are divided on the issue. While many see the Narragansett Boy Scouts as non-discriminatory, others remain opposed to LFL’s subsidiary status. Still more parents have voiced support for the COPE field trip on religious grounds.

“I support the Boy Scouts in that they are a group founded on Judeo-Christian values,” wrote Beth Paolero, a member of the Parents Helping Students Organization, an association of parents with students at Portsmouth High School, in a message to The Herald.


A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Portsmouth Middle School used “public funds” to finance a field trip organized by Learning for Life, a subsidiary of the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, the school raised the necessary funds from students’ parents, who were asked to contribute money and sign permission slips before their children could attend the trip.


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