‘Don’t waste his money’: Utah high school assignment on dating draws accusations of gender bias

|  Courtesy Utah Education Network  A dating assignment. | Courtesy Utah Education Network A dating assignment.
Education • Guide to “$5 Date” is yanked from curriculum database after complaint goes viral.

For many teenagers, getting a date is hard enough — let alone if your high school grades depend on it.

School administrators in Salt Lake City went into damage control mode Tuesday after a parent’s complaint about her daughter’s assignment gained attention through social media.

Jenn Oxborrow posted a photo of two handouts — one for girls, another for boys — that instructed students at Highland High School to go on a date that costs no more than $5.

The handouts included suggestions for appropriate date behavior, submitted by members of the opposite gender, including guidance that girls should try to eat the food they order and not waste their date’s money, and that boys should refrain from “gross noises.”

And “if you think you’re too fat,” the assignment instructs female students, “keep it to yourself.”

“Thanks for educating our kids, Utah Department of Education,” Oxborrow wrote in her Facebook post, which had been shared more than 541 times. “We really appreciate you [sic] evidence-based misogyny.”

The assignment was part of Highland’s adult roles and financial literacy class, a course required for high school graduation under state law.

But the handouts were not written by a teacher at the school, Highland Principal Chris Jenson said, and were never intended to be followed to the letter.

Jenson said the teacher — whom he did not name — took the handouts from a database of approved classroom materials maintained by the state and instructed students to use their own interpretation of the assignment, whether that be a casual date or time spent with a friend.

“She’s just mortified,” Jenson said. “She wanted it to be a light-hearted lesson in social norms.”

Lucy Mulligan, Oxborrow’s daughter, said the impression given in class was that an actual date was required.

“She never said that it could be a friend,” Mulligan said. “She really didn’t leave it up to us if we wanted to or not.”

Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, said the “$5 Date” materials were being removed from the state’s curriculum database in response to the complaint.

He said the origin of the assignment was unclear, as Utah teachers are able to upload their own lesson materials to the database for use by other educators.

“They’re inappropriate,” he said, “and we’re taking them down.”

The materials were included in the “Purposes of Dating” portion of the state curriculum database. Other materials in that section include an “Is it love?” test by radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger and a list of inexpensive date ideas.

By Tuesday afternoon, the entire “Purposes of Dating” section had been removed.

“There’s no doubt that there is gender bias in the assignment,” Jenson said. “There are some things that are relatively arcane in that assignment and that need to be updated or gotten rid of.”

Mulligan, who is 16, said she has been concerned about the content of the course and its assignments since the start of the school year.

“Teachers should be a reliable source of information,” she said, “and this doesn’t seem like an educated assignment, or an assignment that would teach you anything at all.”

Oxborrow said she was encouraged by the school and school board’s response. But she added that the assignment was indicative of a pervasive “hetero-normative” and gender-biased tone in the Adult Roles and Financial Literacy class.

One tip on the girls sheet is “Be feminine and lady-like.”

Oxborrow said it was also inappropriate to require students to go on a date for schoolwork and insensitive to imply that date must be with someone of the opposite sex.

“If you’re trying to figure out where you stand with your gender identity and then you get an assignment like this, it puts our kids at risk,” she said. “Our teachers and our principals have to acknowledge some of this and teach in a sensitive, evidence-based way — and they’re not.”

Oxborrow described some of the suggestions included on the handout as “unbelievable.”

Female students were told to be ready on time, show respect to their date and refrain from critiquing his driving and personal habits. Male students were told to chew with their mouths closed, express their feelings and not exaggerate about the date to their friends afterward.

When she first posted the images, Oxborrow said, she had to clarify to friends and family that it was not a prank.

“The feedback, overwhelmingly, has been people being dismayed at how gender-biased this is,” she said.

bwood@sltrib.com

Twitter: @bjaminwood