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Students ask for district support of LGBTQ+ peers

Sabine Poux/KDLL

Students and staff stressed a need for inclusion in Kenai Peninsula Borough schools at last night’s Board of Education meeting, following a string of recent incidents that some say amount to censorship of materials about LGBTQ+ characters and themes.

The board wasn’t considering any related agenda items Monday. 

But nearly 10 students and staff called in to testify about their experiences with discrimiation in the district.

“The grand majority, if not all, of the gay, trans and otherwise LGBTQIA+ students do not feel safe in the schools. As a governing body of the schools, you have the power to make a difference," said student Sophia Dias. Along with two other students, they told the board they’ve experienced harassment at the hands of their peers for being queer.

Homer Flex High School senior Kathleen Kuhn said she faced bullying for being bisexual while she was a student at Homer High.

“I have been called slurs, asked invasive questions about my sexuality and had people make inappropriate comments toward me because of how I identify and being open about it," Kuhn said. "It’s beyond me, though. So many people who attend Homer High School have had awful experiences in these halls.”

Speakers mostly avoided talking about specific instances of alleged discrimination from the district itself.

But the push to testify at the board meeting follows several incidents this fall that resulted in complaints and grievances from the teachers’ association.

In August, the district withheld books about sexuality from the Seward High School library that it deemed “controversial.” The books were returned last month, and the teacher’s association lodged a formal complaint against an administrator for keeping the books out of the library. 

Soldotna High School Librarian Tamra Wear said Monday night it’s important for young people to read about complex topics so they have the tools and context to engage.

“A lot has happened this past month. It’s going to be important going forward that people are willing to have tough conversations," Wear said. "We need to set an example for our students. It will also be important for us to follow board policy, but to also make sure those policies are following inclusion, tolerance and equality for everyone.”

Separately, at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School last month, two fourth- and fifth-grade teachers were told to temporarily stop teaching a book that featured transgender and non-binary characters after a school administrator found it age inappropriate.

Nathan Erfurth, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said both instances violate district policy, since there were no formal complaints lodged or reviewed before the books were taken out.

Superintendent Clayton Holland said the book at K-Beach wasn’t formally part of the curriculum, so it was not subject to the same review process. As for the situation at Seward High School, he said he’s looking into it and is working to make sure the process for challenging curriculum is understood by all staff.

Earlier this fall, Winter Marshall-Allen, a special education teacher at Homer High School, was asked to take down a flag in her classroom that featured pride colors and Black Lives Matter fist, which she was told by district administration was a political statement.

She filed a grievance with the district. In response, the district and teacher’s association drew up a joint resolution to allow symbols of inclusion, like pride flags, inside classrooms. The resolution says that’s allowed as long as those symbols don’t “exclude other groups.”

Marshall-Allen said symbols of inclusion and diversity are not political. And she said the district needs to continue to offer professional development training for its staff so they know how to respond when faced with conversations about gender and sexuality.

“We need more PD to be able to support all of our students, especially our students who identify across the LGBTQ spectrum," she said.

The teacher’s association is holding training this month for members who want to learn how to support LGBTQ+ students. It’s bringing down a trainer from the Mat-Su who has held workshops around the state.

Holland said the district also provides Title IX training for administrators and will soon extend it to teachers. 

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination of students based on gender. This summer, the Biden Administration ruled it extends tosexuality.

There was little pushback against Title IX, or any other anti-discrimination policies, at Monday’s meeting. One parent said he was concerned pride flags communicate political messages that could further divide students. 

But this summer, when the district presented its plan to come into compliance with federal Title IX regulations, parents said they feared those policies would be used to defend transgender students or suppress free speech.

Holland said Monday the district gets accused regularly of promoting a particular lifestyle. He said that’s not the case.

But what the district is striving to do, he said, is provide a supportive and inclusive environment for its kids.

“And we will continue to learn and review and learn how we can continually improve in this area," he said. "I feel we’ve made good steps over the years, and even more recently, but hearing these stories tonight from our students who were impacted, I think it highlights that we have to stay vigilant, have to stay focused and have to stay true to creating an environment and school setting that is good for all students.”

Kuhn, the student from Homer Flex, said she’d like to see administrators believe kids when they say they’re being mistreated and take steps to show students their schools are safe spaces. Thea Person, a junior at Homer High School, asked the board to stand up for the district’s LGBTQ+ community. 

“As someone who has been in your school system my entire life, I ask you, as one of your students, to please not erase your LGBTQ+ students from your mission," she said.

Wear and Marshall-Allen are chairing the teachers’ association’s new Human Civil Rights Committee. The committee was organized to look into incidents like the ones this fall and met for the first time last week.

This story has been updated to include the preferred pronouns of one of the students who testified at the meeitng.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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