Treatment of LGBTQ+ students within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District dominated public testimony during the Board of Education’s Monday night meeting, where multiple staff and students advocated for the district’s LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and others who do not identify as heterosexual or cisgender. The acronym is sometimes lengthened with an “I” or “A” to include intersex and asexual people.
The testimony came on the heels of a tumultuous month for the district as it relates to LGBTQ+ students. Several incidents of bullying or exclusion toward LGBTQ+ students were reported in October that ranged from the removal of pride flags at Homer High School and allegations of censorship of books about LGBTQ+ issues at Seward High School.
Those incidents prompted the creation of a Human Civil Rights Committee by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Education Association, the union representing the district’s teachers and certified staff. That committee met for the first time last week and is chaired by Tamra Wear, the librarian at Soldotna High School.
“A lot has happened this past month,” Wear said during Monday’s board meeting. “It’s going to be important going forward that people are willing to have tough conversations. We need to set an example for our students. It will also be important for us to follow board policy but also to make sure those policies are fostering inclusion, tolerance and equality for everyone.”
KPEA also reached a resolution with the school district last month, which says teachers can display “symbols of inclusion,” as long as those symbols do not “simultaneously exclude other groups.” The resolution came after a teacher at Homer High School was asked to remove various flags and decals from her classroom that included a pride flag with a solidarity fist. After KPEA pushed back, it was decided that inclusive symbols, including a progressive pride flag that includes symbols of support for transgender individuals and people of color, can be displayed.
Among the people who voiced their support for the district’s LGBTQ+ community during testimony given Monday were district staff members, community members and students. KPBSD Itinerant Counselor Natali Jones read Alexandra Penfold’s 2018 children’s book “All Are Welcome,” which she said is the type of acceptance she wants to see for KPBSD students.
“Our strength is our diversity, a shelter from adversity,” a line from the book says.
While several people who testified said they supported clear symbols of inclusion in schools, Ryan Culbertson, a parent from Sterling, said the district should place more emphasis on flags that represent everyone, such as the American and Alaskan flags.
“A flag does not make an environment safe,” Culbertson said. “Taking them down does not make a space unsafe. One does not teach inclusion by singling a group out … we should rally around the denominators that truly bind us all together.”
The board also heard from LGBTQ+ students in the district, who shared stories about experiencing and witnessing bullying toward the community and who spoke about the support that designated “safe spaces” provide.
Thea Person, who uses she/they pronouns and is a junior at Homer High School, said she has experienced “hostility” toward LGBTQ+ students while at school and said students deserve to learn without feeling like they have to hide their identities. Those incidents of hostility, Person said, contribute to the communities LGBTQ+ students form with one another.
“What is often hard to realize from an outside perspective is that we as students, specifically in the LGBTQIA+ community … tell each other our stories,” Person said. “We form a community to try and shield each other from the physical and verbal abuse, the slurs, and the objects that are thrown at us — at children. I personally have been called names and received hostility simply for daring to wear a pride flag and I believe that in a learning environment, that is simply not productive.”
Kathleen Kuhn, a senior at Homer Flex High School, shared stories about people she knows who have been bullied for being a part of the LGBTQ+ community in addition to her own experiences of discrimination. Kuhn, who is openly bisexual, said she has been called slurs, asked “invasive” questions about her sexuality and had people make inappropriate comments toward her because of how she identifies. Kuhn said when she was a junior she and her best friend were tripped by a boy who called them homophobic slurs after he saw them walking down the hall together. Kuhn said she believed that wouldn’t have happened if her friend had been of the opposite gender.
“There are ways to help and to make sure that your school is a safe, tolerant and inclusive space for young queer students, like the inclusion of clubs for LGBTQ students and their allies, marked safe spaces, letting students have their voices heard, believing students when they are experiencing unfair treatment, and having adults be allies,” Kuhn said. “Everyone deserves to have a safe learning environment and to be treated with respect by those around them. I hope that we can move toward inclusivity, acceptance and putting a stop to these behaviors towards open and proud LGBTQIA students.”
In response to concerns raised about how LGBTQ+ students are supported, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland said during Monday’s meeting that the district is committed to providing a “safe and inclusive environment” for all students. He also emphasized the proactive steps the district is taking to make sure that happens, including the new resolution about symbols of inclusion, bringing the district into compliance with federal Title IX guidelines and ensuring district staff are clear on board policies.
“Hearing these stories tonight from our students who are impacted — I think it highlights that we have to stay vigilant, have to stay focused and have to stay true to creating an environment in a school setting is good for all students,” Holland said. “I will never have a problem saying that to anybody, and I know this district is committed to that same thing.”