Nebraska school board rebuffs requests after gender training fiasco

Part 9 of 8 in the series LPS gender sensitivity training

GENDER BENDER: The Lincoln, Neb., school district continues to simmer with tension six weeks after gender sensitivity training was made public.

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – While Lincoln’s superintendent removed controversial gender sensitivity training materials from a middle school, the Lincoln school board presented a united front Tuesday, saying the training complied with district policies.

The training materials made national news because they suggested teachers not call students “boys and girls” but less gender-specific terms, such as campers or contrived class mascots — Purple Penguins. More than a month later, the controversy continues, with the leader of a group of concerned residents saying he won’t rule out a drive to recall board members if the board continues to ignore their concerns.

Two weeks ago, after consecutive school board meetings in which people bombarded the board with concerns, Superintendent Steve Joel ordered the training materials removed from Irving Middle School.

But Tuesday, the board announced — with no prior notice that a review was even happening — that a three-member standing subcommittee convened to review concerns; it met Nov. 3 and determined the gender training complied with LPS policies.

NOT OVER: John Cosby was elected president of a recently organized parental rights group in Lincoln. He said the controversy is far from over.

Some residents alleged the training materials violated several district policies and called for added transparency and a change to its policy on parental involvement.

Katie McLeese Stephenson, chairwoman of the policy subcommittee, said the training materials didn’t violate any LPS policy — largely because they weren’t part of the curriculum — and recommended no policy changes.

The committee said the district’s current parental involvement policy is adequate, and the training didn’t violate a policy allowing teachers to hold their own personal beliefs. They noted no staffers have come to the board with concerns about the training.

McLeese Stephenson referred to an April U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights memo saying federal education law’s ban on sex discrimination, Title IX, extends to claims based on gender identity or “failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”

“Since meeting the needs of transgender students is a legal requirement, the discussion of that topic is not a presentation of one political viewpoint, but following through on a Title IX requirement,” she said.

A group called Citizens for Accountable and Responsible Education sprang out of the controversy with the goal of getting LPS to address transparency, notification and opt-out issues.

The group’s recently installed president, John Cosby, said it seemed the school board “dodged or discarded every concern a parent has had on this issue” Tuesday.

But the controversy is far from over, he said.

“Not even close. It’s a bit baffling to me, to be honest, if they really wanted to listen, or make this go away, they wouldn’t be so dismissive.”

Cosby said he wouldn’t rule out a recall of board members.

“I would prefer to be able to work it out,” he said, “but I wouldn’t rule anything out if there’s enough people in this community who say this is unacceptable and LPS doesn’t do anything about it.”

It didn’t sound to him as if the school board was willing to work it out. He said he got the feeling Tuesday the board “almost regretted” removing the training materials.

He said the school board investigated itself and said, in essence, “Don’t worry. Trust us.”

Cosby said CARE agrees discrimination shouldn’t occur in schools.

“To me it seems like it’s the red herring,” he said. “I think they’re trying to figure out what to say to make this whole thing go away.”

Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Council, said parents are only growing more concerned as they learn more aboutLPS practices — such as reading books to preschoolers about gender nonconforming people.

“It seems to me there is much more to the story than the handout that was given to some teachers a few weeks ago,” Riskowski said. “I don’t believe parents are convinced that the issue is over by any means. There has been some real trust that has been violated.”

Two years ago, Riskowski’s organization successfully helped organize a petition drive to refer a Lincoln ordinance extending civil rights on the basis of gender identity and sexual preference to a vote of the people two years ago. The city has never held a vote, as required by law, but also never implemented the ordinance.

Riskowski said Tuesday was the first time LPS officials mentioned a federal memo as the rationale for the gender training.

“It’s like an evolving story,” he said. “Even if there is a legal obligation, which (is) something we’ll have to investigate … there are various ways you can approach this.”

He said students can be taught to be respectful to everyone without requiring them to embrace others’ opinions or lifestyles.

During the school board meeting, most of the board members weighed in on the issue, invoking, for example, the religiosity of their family and the Ten Commandments.

Board member Ed Zimmer said his parents were deeply religious, and he learned their creator didn’t make any “second-class citizens.”

“I feel fortunate to be on this board, in this district, in this community, which I think shares those beliefs,” he said. “It’s not just a good idea, it is the law.”

While the training materials have been removed, Zimmer said he hopes the school district staff will prepare its own materials. He also made a cryptic reference to Joel’s upcoming review.

Cosby said he’s glad the district will come up with new training, as long as it doesn’t advocate or punish children with different beliefs.

Kathy Danek, a member of the subcommittee, said staff development is meant to prepare teachers for things that may never happen, akin to safety drills. She said there’s so much diversity in the world, and the district tries to give teachers “a plethora of information.”

Board member Don Mayhew said access to education, not bullying, is the issue — although the superintendent specifically mentioned bullying in his Oct. 9 news conference defending the training.

Mayhew said he firmly believes in parental rights but thinks the fracas boils down to two competing belief systems: One group of parents believe being gay or transgender is a choice and a sin, and another group believes “they are exactly how God made them.”

Parents have the right to opt out of controversial curriculum, but “don’t get to change the curriculum for the other kids,” he said.

“That’s where I draw the line,” he said.

The volunteer school board is composed of five Democrats and two Republicans, who had little to say Tuesday: Richard Meginnis said the other board members said what he wanted to say, and Lanny Boswell thanked both sides for being civil and respectful, saying the district’s primary mission is to educate all children.

“And all still means all,” Boswell said. “Let’s just keep moving forward and educating kids.”

Joel said while the training materials were removed, the district is legally obligated to provide information to educators. He said LPS has “really listened” and will vet the materials — and “try to be transparent about that” — to help teachers understand students who are “very, very different and with needs.”

“And we’re not going to back away from that,” he said.

He said some educators feel as if they’ve been targeted by the controversy.

“I want them to hear my words tonight, that we may have used materials that were inappropriate at the time and not in good context, we have to continue to work,” he said. “These students are important to us… and we have to help them be successful.”

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