A teacher's explanation to parents of a women's history project planned for her third-graders contained these words: "If your child is a young man, he does not have to wear a dress or skirt."
That didn't stop a parent and a blogger from complaining that little boys were being asked to cross-dress as part of the "gay agenda." From there, the Maude Wilkins School's project about the evolution of women's clothing quickly took on a life of its own — and now it's been called off completely.
"In hindsight," Superintendent Michael Livengood said Wednesday, "maybe a different activity could have been chosen that was a little bit more relevant to history."
It's the second time in six months that a New Jersey school program has attracted wide attention for something officials say was planned innocently. About 70 protesters visited a Burlington County school in October, upset about a song in which students praised President Barack Obama.
In both cases, administrators say, the ensuing uproar was due to blogs that spread the word but got the intent wrong.
A look at women's fashion
The latest saga began this month when teacher Tonya Uibel sent a letter home with her pupils announcing that all third-graders at Maude Wilkins were required to participate in a Women's History Month project examining how women's fashion has changed over time.
The letter said, in part: "If your child is a young man, he does not have to wear a dress or skirt, as there are many time periods where women wore jeans, pants and trousers. However, each child must be able to express what time period their outfit is from. Most of all, your child should have fun creating their outfit and learning about how women's clothing has changed!"
Janine Giandomenico, a mother of a boy in the class and a frequent user of online social networks, posted a complaint on Facebook. By Monday, her concerns had worked their way to Warner Todd Huston, an opinion writer and editor of the Publius' Forum site.
He skewered the school and suggested that the timing of the event, scheduled for Friday, was designed to coincide with a national "Day of Silence" to protest harassment of gays.
"Pushing the gay agenda while feminizing our young boys through a cross-dressing day? This isn't your parent's grade school celebration, for sure," he wrote.
They'll draw instead
On Monday, as the Web traffic swelled and national media outlets picked up on the story, principal Beth Norcia decided to cancel the fashion show. She wrote in a new letter to parents that instead, students would draw how women's fashion had evolved.
One third-grader, Elizabeth Heisler, said as school let out Wednesday that none of her classmates had seemed confused about whether boys were supposed to wear dresses. The cancellation of the fashion show means she doesn't get to wear her red and black "can-can" dress to school on Friday.
The episode confounded her mother, Amanda Heisler.
"I would never think my son was going to come to school in an 1800s dress and petticoat," she said.
Livengood, who leads the Maple Shade Township school district, acknowledged that the initial letter could be misunderstood.
But he said the school wasn't trying to make anyone uncomfortable — and wasn't even aware of the gay rights protests scheduled the same day.
"It's unbelievable to me that the wording of a letter to a group of third-graders has caused this," he said. "Do they really think that our little group of third-grade teachers has conspired to try to get boys to cross-dress?"
The district hasn't heard complaints from any parents besides Giandomenico, Livengood said.
She told The Associated Press via Facebook message that she would be available for an interview, but has not responded to subsequent requests. On her Twitter account, she had this to say: "WE WON-CANCELLED! THANKS 4 YR SUPPORT!"
Still, Livengood said, he's learned a lesson — to make sure communications from teachers to parents are reviewed before they go out.