By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – About 200 people turned out for a school board meeting in Lincoln, Neb., Tuesday night to support and oppose gender inclusiveness training that was done with middle school teachers last month.
GENDERBENDER: Lincoln mother Rachel Terry sparked a national media firestorm by raising concerns about a middle school’s gender inclusiveness training program which discouraged teachers from calling students girls and boys.
An hour-and-a-half into the meeting, 10 people had testified against the training program, and eight in support. One woman brought a petition signed by 385 people she said supported the training program.
Lincoln Public Schools made national news earlier this month because the training program suggested avoid using “gendered expressions” such as “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen,” but instead call students campers, scholars, readers, athletes or even a contrived class mascot such as Purple Penguins.
Some people praised the board for trying to make all students feel comfortable in school – especially those struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity – while others lambasted the board for imposing controversial values on students.
Three ministers and the Lincoln teachers’ union testified in support of the school district, while numerous parents testified against the training.
Stephen Griffith, a minister for St. Paul United Methodist Church who was speaking for himself, thanked the school board.
But Ali Moghadam, who said he was a former political prisoner in Iran, said he supports cultural diversity but one month ago, the parent of a non-gender conforming preschooler demanded the school educate teachers on gender issues. He accused the district of camouflaging the training as cultural diversity and anti-bullying and said parents have a right to raise their children according to their values and beliefs.
“In our view this is indoctrination, not education,” he said, asking the school board to root out political correctness.
Brian Edwards said Superintendent Steve Joel’s public comments have indicated resentment that the school district has had to waste time and resources responding to the controversy and that parents’ concerns are only welcome when they don’t cross him.
“This, dear board member, is bullying in the adult world,” he said.
Jenni Absalon, president of the Lincoln Education Association, said lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender students are more vulnerable to poor grades, dropping out of school and homelessness.
Wayne Smith, a grandfather of two LPS students, said the “very radical” training materials suggesting teachers refer to gender as “boys, girls, both or neither” is ludicrous and questioned the wisdom of using training materials provided by a social justice comedian. He also questioned why Joel said the materials weren’t meant to be released.
“Why would LPS be concerned about teacher training material getting into the hands of parents?” he asked.
The parent of two LPS students, Courtney Criswell, said the training materials were openly dismissive and hostile toward parents.
“This is not the new normal,” she said.
Ashley Daily said Southeast High School has devoted its last thee monthly cultural proficiency training periods on sexual preference, and questioned why more time isn’t spent on things like autism, which affect more students.
But Todd Tystad, a teacher at Sheridan Elementary School, said some students struggle with sexual orientation and gender identity issues and occasionally talk to him about it. He said he’s not going to refer to students as purple penguins, but will choose his words carefully.
But a parent of three students, Ben Terry, said the training could lead to the demise of gender-specific sports teams and called it a “cloak and dagger approach” and weapon in a culture battle under the guise of anti-bullying.
Jennifer Post said she was bullied as a child, but the training materials go beyond tolerance and force acceptance.
Retired teacher Eileen Durgin-Clinchard, who has a gay son, said the training is crucial to help students keep an open mind, present arguments and draw conclusions.
Anna Cosby said all students deserve to be treated with respect, but said the training documents could exacerbate problems.
“These handouts push an agenda,” she said. “Leave the job of defining gender to others.”
Jonathan Cosby said his wife asked to review a textbook and was denied three times, then got it after a month. When she tried to get the gender sensitivity training materials, she got it after legal counsel was consulted.
“What is LPS trying to hide?” he asked. “Does LPS truly encourage parental involvement?”
Cathy Beecham, who has two LPS students, said she trusts the teachers and administrators to help students without pushing an agenda.
Representatives of LGBT groups said transgender or gender nonconforming students are more susceptible to bullying, suicide and harassment.
Wes Staley, representing a transgender community group, said he was bullied as an LPS student.
“This is not a moral issue,” he said. “This is a matter of keeping all students, safe, healthy and welcome.”
Diane Walkowiak said she grew up Catholic in a small Nebraska town, and raised a “beautiful daughter who is now my son.”
“You are telling me that my son is immoral. You are telling me my son is not worth the staff time to be informed on how to deal with them and make them feel welcome. You are telling me that it doesn’t matter that I and other parents fear for our students’ life.”
She said people may not agree but staffers need to be informed on gender issues.
“You can’t wish transgender people away,” she said. “They are here.”
Evelyn Fink said her 22-year-old son went through LPS as a gender-fluid child and was bullied, and nobody chooses to be a member of a group that’s hated, disproportionately murdered and often rejected for employment and housing.
Julie Hunter, an Irving Middle School building liaison, said she attended a meeting on gender inclusiveness but doesn’t see any hidden agenda. The handouts were intended to start a conversation, not a mandate.
“I cringe when I hear the word ‘agenda,’ because I don’t think I’m part of one,” she said. “Society is changing before our eyes.”
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