By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. — Irving Middle School was thrust into the international spotlight last summer simply for following orders.
Internal documents obtained by Nebraska Watchdog show the Lincoln Public School District encouraged school administrators to train school staff in gender sensitivity, which caused the dust up.
LPS administrators, during routine summer training, participated in a breakout session on gender identity, and each school’s equity liaison was given handouts “from national speakers with recognized expertise in this area,” according to the LPS documents obtained under the open records law.
The equity liaisons were encouraged to observe the Gay-Straight Alliance’s National Day of Silence (to protest LGBT bullying, name-calling and harassment); advised not to let their personal or religious beliefs overshadow professional behavior and given the controversial “genderbread person” document last year, according to LPS documents.
The handout, written by “social justice comedian” Sam Killermann, said gender isn’t binary, it isn’t either/or and encourages kids to define their gender based on how much they align with “what you understand to be the options for gender” such as “two-spirit” and “gender/queer.” LPS has since said it’s looking for a better alternative to the genderbread handout.
PENGUINS: A Lincoln, Neb., middle school at the center of a controversy over gender sensitivity training was encouraged by school district administrators to do such training.
School administrators were told students should be allowed to determine their gender identity and preferred pronoun — he or she — and were warned that “gender-based discrimination” is illegal.
They were told to “effectively implement gender inclusive practices that help build the foundation for a safe school for all students” and urged to evaluate all “gender-based” policies, rules and practices that might marginalize, stigmatize and exclude students.
As for whether transgender students can use the restrooms and locker rooms they identify with, administrators were told to review each case individually.
After the summer training, LPS multicultural school community administrator Thomas Christie emailed LGBT documents to middle school principals Aug. 5, encouraging them to train teachers.
Four days later, Irving Principal Susette Taylor asked several teachers to integrate LGBT sensitivity into staff training, according to internal emails. She emailed LPS “transgender resources” to Irving’s multicultural liaison and cultural proficiency team leader, Spanish teacher Nancy Stanley, and asked her to incorporate the training into the school’s first professional development meeting.
Stanley reached out to LPS transition specialist Irene Prince and Southeast High School English teacher Sara Danielson — because she’d heard they spoke at the LPS leadership conference on the topic of LGBT.
According to an outline of the Irving training, both Danielson and Prince talked about their “personal experience” with nonconforming genders and sexualities.
But after a teacher who was not comfortable with the training leaked some of the handouts, the story exploded.
A day later, Assistant Superintendent John Neal was supportive of the principal, saying in an email to her, “By the way, great job in leading your building and helping create an environment of welcomeness at Irving. … As (Superintendent) Steve (Joel) said, it is our moral and legal obligation.”
Joel alerted his school board that some parents had obtained copies of the training materials, writing, “Their view seems to be that tax dollars should not be used to promote inclusiveness that families take exception to.”
LPS officials met the morning the story broke and came up with “talking points” that were sent to middle school principals, according to internal emails. Chief among them was that the school district has a moral and obligation to do the training.
The school board has steadfastly defended the training, even more so in private emails.
School board member Don Mayhew emailed LPS officials on Oct. 1, the morning the story came out, alerting them that Rachel Terry, the mother who notified other parents about the gender training, might show up at the next board meeting. He asked whether he should encourage another parent who is “very much on our side in the transgender debate” to show up at the meeting, too.
“My experience with these kinds of events/issues is to let them play out and see how deep the sentiment/perceptions are,” the superintendent replied.
Three days after the story broke, the superintendent sent an “update” to school board members saying, “What was discussed at Irving was part of our cultural proficiency commitment and should be occurring on different levels in all of our schools. Kudos to our building leadership.”
He lamented some media accounts, especially those that portrayed the boy and girl issue as a mandate. He took issue with Nebraska Watchdog’s story on the controversy, saying it would “probably go national” and calling it “muckraking at its best.”
In an email to Joel, LPS spokeswoman Mary Kay Roth called the Watchdog story a disjointed “hack job” and suggested he reject an interview request. The first third of the story is a description of the training handouts, and then the story quoted what Joel told a radio talk show host and opponents’ opinions. LPS has never notified Watchdog of any errors in the story.
School board member Ed Zimmer, in an email to supporters, derided opponents of the training as “misinformed.”
“Most of the negative responses I’ve received have been from misinformed people outside our community,” he wrote Oct. 13. “Insight trumps incite, in my book.”
Joel was firm from the start that LPS would not budge on the issue, writing in an email that he hoped parents didn’t show up at the board meeting, since “there isn’t any policy that is going to be created or revised as a result of this.”
“We will continue to be respectful of differences of opinion but will not change our intent to use PD (professional development) to help staff improve,” Joel wrote.
Indeed, a few weeks later the school board concluded that no policies needed to be revised in the wake of the controversy, as requested by some opposed to the training.
But within a month, Joel would order the training documents withdrawn from schools, saying they weren’t “appropriate, purposeful and clear.” Internal emails indicate the school district was already looking for better alternatives to the training materials.
The controversy has prompted the formation of a parental rights group that is looking for candidates to run for three seats on the school board in the spring — Terry has said she intends to run — and is circulating a petition calling on LPS to affirm parental rights. Hundreds of people have shown up at school board meetings since Oct. 1. A dozen people talked about the issue during the Tuesday night board meeting — including three students who brought “genderbread” cookies in support of LPS.
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