Parents press Lincoln school board to take action on gender training


GENDER STUDIES: Parents addressed the Lincoln school board for a second time this month over gender sensitivity training used in a middle school.

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Seventeen Lincoln residents showed up at the Lincoln school board meeting Tuesday to push for action on their concerns about controversial gender sensitivity training at a middle school.

A firestorm of protest rocked the school district that normally makes headlines by selecting names for new schools after Irving Middle School teachers used gender inclusiveness training that suggested teachers not call students boys and girls but other terms like campers, readers, athletes or even a concocted class mascot like Purple Penguins.

Several parents pressed the board to remove the training materials and adopt new policies to address controversial teacher or training materials, but the board didn’t seem likely to do so.

It marked the second school board meeting where the room was filled with concerned citizens, many of whom said they weren’t pleased with the school district’s response to their concerns. Two weeks ago, 200 people showed up for the school board meeting and about 40 testified on the training, with a little more than half opposing it.

NOT HAPPY: Former Councilwoman Robin Eschliman said she doubts the district used training it doesn’t want teachers to use.

Several parents politely expressed anger over the way the board and superintendent reacted to the controversy, which has attracted national media attention.

Nancy Carr told the board she was “very troubled” by Superintendent Steve Joel’s attitude about the issue and thinks he owes the public an apology “for his handling of this matter.”

Former City Councilwoman Robin Eschliman, whose daughter attends a Lincoln school, said she’s “not very happy” about the training materials, particularly those that advised teachers to be intolerant and even punitive toward “openly hostile attitudes or references towards others… on their statements about gender.”

And while Joel has said the training materials were just guidelines, not mandates, Eschliman said she doubts the district would use guidelines it didn’t expect teachers to follow. She said it’s a political view that gender is fluid, as the guidelines stress.

Adam Criswell, whose two daughters attend LPS, said he was blindsided by the Irving training materials and “even more blown away” that concerned parents were belittled. He pressed the board to have the courage to admit it was a mistake, saying most Lincolnites would applaud it.

“It is the not the place of a public school to endorse a gender spectrum,” Criswell said.

Paul Koehler said trust has been broken in LPS and clearly some teachers wouldn’t hesitate to use such materials that are contrary to how he has raised his daughters.

Courtney Criswell said she was “sorely disappointed” in an LPS update that was sent to staffers the day after the last school board meeting because it only included supportive comments from those who testified, even though more people testified against the training materials than in support.

Asked about the email, LPS spokeswoman Mary Kay Roth said the email is sent to LPS employees and “represents the LPS point of view.” The email was later revised to delete the positive comments.

Lee Todd, who has a 4-year-old and 6-year-old in the district, said he was shocked and stunned by the LPS Update, and while he applauds the fact that it was changed, “the damage was done.”

He said the training materials violated an LPS policy requiring parents to be notified of controversial materials. And he said teachers are afraid to come forward and express their concerns.

Criwsell said LPS has blamed everyone but themselves – the media, parents and teachers – and created an environment of mistrust, fear and division.

“This is probably the most hot button political issue in our country right now,” Criswell said. “So let’s focus on education, not politics, and remove these materials from our schools. … Please don’t contribute to any more distrust by ignoring parents’ concerns.”

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STICKER: Cassy Heller said she learned Tuesday her third-grade son’s classroom has a Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network sticker on the window, and said she won’t send him to school until it’s removed.

Cassy Heller, whose children attend LPS schools, asked the board to direct its staff to stop using the gender inclusiveness handouts, which a school board member has acknowledged could still be used.

She was shocked to learn Tuesday her third-grade son’s classroom at Pyrtle Elementary School has a GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) sticker in the window.

“Can you understand my concern?” she asked the board. “I feel my child will not be going to school until that has been removed from the classroom.”

Rachel Terry, the parent who first alerted other parents to the training, was skeptical of Joel’s contention that the training materials were just “conversation starters,” saying she hopes parents aren’t paying teachers to sit around and get trained on materials that don’t pertain to students.

She noted Lincoln didn’t do well on its No Child Left Behind proficiency standards, even though Nebraska’s standards has been given a D- for its low standards.

Jonathan Cosby said LPS should make it easier for parents to get information about the training materials.

“There is a fine line between awareness and advocacy,” he said. “There is a fine line between teaching and indoctrination.”

Kathy Edwards said controversial materials should be properly vetted by the district and the gender sensitivity training used at Irving be removed.

Ben Terry said LPS administrators’ response to concerned parents have been “shockingly tone-deaf.”

“They have expressed irritation with the concerns of parents and have tried to brush the issue aside by releasing one-sided statements through the press, robocalls and mass email to downplay what happened at Irving and to totally disregard parents’ reactions,” he said. “They have expressed no regret about using the controversial curriculum and only regret that they were leaked to parents.”

Janna Harris said she feared what LPS will do next in the classroom.

“It’s disappointing that our concerns as parents have been pushed aside,” she said.

Sondra Moghadam began crying while testifying about how upset she is that books promoting acceptance of transgender children are being read to students at Pyrtle Elementary School, where her two children attend school. She opposes the school allowing a preschooler to come to school dressed as a boy some days, and girl other days. She said “gender and sexual deviance” issues are best handled at home.

She is stepping down from her position coordinating after-school clubs due to her disappointment and religious beliefs.

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BLINDSIDED: Parent Adam Criswell said a public school should not endorse a gender spectrum.

At the end of the meeting, Joel read a statement saying the school district has been through a “valuable learning experience” and remains committed to cultural proficiency.

“These materials are not shared with students nor are they shared in a classroom setting,” he said.

He said staffers don’t have to alter their personal beliefs, but most always create welcoming classrooms.

“We value your words. We listened. And I believe we learned from the various perspectives,” Joel said. “As we move forward in our continuing journey of cultural proficiency, we need to be very cognizant of the materials we are using. We need to make sure our resources are appropriate, purposeful and clear.”

The district is “reinforcing important guidelines” with all administrators, principals, teachers and staff, and must be aware materials can be posted online “without explanation or context.”

“Our handouts and resources must be able to stand alone with clarity,” he said, and materials must be consistent with district policies and best practices.

He said staffers should consult LPS leadership for review of materials that could cause concerns among the staff or community, and if questions persist, he’s asking the LPS Cultural Proficiency Implementation Advisory Steering Committee to appraise the materials and lend guidance.

“LPS has an over-arching policy of equity and non-discrimination,” he said. “LPS does not discourage the terminology ‘boys and girls’ when referring to students, but LPS does promote a safe environment that recognizes individual differences so that 39,000 students can feel included, welcomed and successful.”

But his statement did little to assuage the concerns of a group of testifiers who remained, who said they would continue pushing the board to take action.

Several parents asked LPS to be more transparent about controversial teacher training and curriculum, saying they believe the Irving training materials violated a district policy requiring teachers to inform parents when controversial issues are part of the curriculum so they can have alternatives if the parents object.

The parents have been meeting with school board members, asking them to consider policy and regulation changes to the district policy on parental involvement. They want parents to have the right to review all textbooks, tests and teacher training materials and to be notified in advance if their child’s course will include “sex education, family planning, gender identity, diversity issues, extreme violence, or any controversial issue” so they can opt out if they find the material offensive.

They also want the board to set up a parental transparency and involvement system, with a website listing all teacher trainings and current research programs utilitzed including the purpose, agenda, content, handouts, and any other materials used.

They also contend the Irving training violated an LPS policy on personal freedom by advocating for belief in the gender spectrum and want the board to order that the handouts no longer be used.

Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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