Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth works in his office on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Peninsula Education Association President Nathan Erfurth works in his office on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

‘The school building needs to be a safe haven’

Union forms commission in response to accusations of LGBTQ+ censorship in schools

In response to a spike in reports of exclusion toward the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s LGBTQ+ community, the association representing the district’s teachers and certified staff has created a human civil rights committee that will investigate such incidents.

The union has already filed two separate grievances with the school district this year related to incidents that involve LGBTQ+ issues.

In a newsletter distributed this month, the Kenai Peninsula Education Association detailed five incidents of “bullying and exclusion” toward 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 incidents, which all occurred this school year, include the recall of library books in Seward, the removal of pride flags in Homer and outcry over a book that dealt with LGBTQ+ themes at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary.

KPEA President Nathan Erfurth wrote in an Oct. 16 KPEA newsletter that the association had received a number of reports around civil rights, in particular regarding LGBTQ+ students, and expressed concern that “a pattern of bullying and exclusion is developing in our school district.”

“While there are many student demographics that need special focus and attention, this year has shown that KPBSD is failing to adequately protect this segment of the student body and the rights of educators to support them,” the memo said.

The grievance filed in response to the removal of pride flags at Homer High School this year has already been resolved, with the union now focusing on the actions of Assistant Superintendent Kari Dendurent, who KPEA alleges mishandled concerns about library books purchased for the Seward High School library.

Titles of concern

Emails shared with the Clarion show that Dendurent recalled and sought a refund for books ordered for Seward High School after a warehouse employee raised concerns about the contents and themes of certain titles.

The worker called out books with what they identified as LGBTQ+ and racial justice themes.

“There were many LGBTQ books and a CRT (critical race theory) book that was received last week …,” an email from the warehouse worker to KPBSD Planning and Operations Director Kevin Lyon says. “Mind you, these are library books, I understand there is a difference between curriculum books vs. library books.”

While critical race theory refers to an academic concept developed in the 1970s that looks at racism not just as a product of individual bias but as a social construct reinforced through policies and institutions, the term has more recently been used as a catchall by critics to describe educational curricula regarding racial injustice in general.

The identity of the warehouse worker who raised the concerns was withheld in documents shared with the Clarion, and it was not clear to which book they were referring to as being “CRT.” Superintendent Clayton Holland has stated several times that critical race theory is not a part of KPBSD’s curriculum.

The warehouse worker said in an email that they were not “looking for any action to be taken” but rather wanted to make sure Holland “is aware of books that do enter our district,” according to documents that were shared with the Clarion.

Among the titles shown in photos that were included with the email sent to Lyon are:

“Everything You Need to Know about Bisexuality”

“Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen”

“Gay-Straight Alliances: Networking with Other Teens and Allies”

“The Road to Marriage Equality”

“The Gay Liberation Movement: Before and After Stonewall”

“The New Queer Conscience”

“I Am a Feminist: Claiming the F-Word in Turbulent Times”

“We Are Not Yet Equal: Understanding Our Racial Divide”

“Queer There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World”

“Everything You Need to Know about Nonbinary Gender Identities”

“LGBTQ: The Survival Guide for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Teens”

The purchase order shows that these books were included in an order for more than 100 books totaling over $2,000 that was placed for Seward High School on May 24.

Lyon told the Clarion on Friday that it is “typical” for boxes to be opened upon arrival at the district’s warehouse in Soldotna prior to being forwarded on to a school site because that’s when warehouse workers do inventory. Once workers verify that what is on the inventory sheet has actually arrived, the shipment is then sent to its respective school site.

In an Aug. 20 email with the subject line “Controversial books sent to Seward High School that need to (be) verified as appropriate for teens,” Dendurent requested that Seward High School send the titles shown in the photos directly to her. She asked for information on the books that had already been checked out and the plan to “get the books back from students.”

After Seward High School Principal Henry Burns asked whether or not the school would be refunded for books purchased, Dendurent asked the warehouse worker on Oct. 6 to seek a refund from Follet School Solutions Inc., the company that distributed the books.

“These books were purchased by the previous principal and the District would like to request the books be returned as the content was an oversight for resources matching our health curriculum and District Policy,” Dendurent wrote.

KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff confirmed Friday that the books Dendurent requested arrived at the district office in Soldotna on Aug. 23. Dendurent was unavailable for comment for this story, Erkeneff said Friday.

After nearly two months at the district office, however, the books were returned to Seward High School via a warehouse truck on Oct. 11. Erkeneff said deliveries to the Seward area are made weekly. It is unclear why the books were returned.

In response to the incident, KPEA filed a personnel complaint against Dendurent on Oct. 22 alleging that she did not follow the process for challenging books as described in KPBSD board policy. The filing of that complaint triggered an investigation spearheaded by Holland.

In an Oct. 10 letter sent to Holland, Dendurent and members of the KPBSD Board of Education, Soldotna High School Librarian Tamra Wear condemned the district withholding books from the Seward High School library and called for “full disclosure” of the incident.

“It is the duty of an educator to educate the whole child,” Wear wrote. “Not only the parts that they agree with.”

A process outlined in policy

The policy KPEA alleges Dendurent violated when she recalled the books from the Seward High School library outlines a clear process for challenging learning materials, with different protocols for whether those materials are required or not.

The process for challenging instructional materials — including textbooks and library books — is outlined in Board Policy 1312.2, which addresses “Public Complaints Concerning Instructional Materials” and Administrative Regulation 1312.2, which addresses “Challenges to Instructional Materials.”

AR 1312.2 states that challenges to instructional materials will only be accepted from staff, district residents or the parents or guardians of children enrolled in a KPBSD school and must be presented to a principal in writing. When the complaint involves materials outside of required curriculum, the regulation states that the right of a teacher, program, school or district cannot be restricted until a decision has been made by the superintendent following receipt of the recommendation of the instruction team or review committee.

Complaints are then investigated by a District Instructional Review Team composed of the Assistant Superintendent of Instruction, which would be Dendurent, the Director of Curriculum, a Staff Development Specialist, at least one appropriate grade level or content teacher and one librarian or district media specialist.

Once the review team has considered how the material supports curriculum, the “educational appropriateness” of the material and its “suitability” for the age level, the team either decides to allow continued use of the material, to modify or limit access to the material or to have it further reviewed by the Instructional Review Committee responsible for reviewing required materials.

Once a decision is made, the committee then submits a report to the superintendent, who then decides to either accept or reject the decision of the committee.

KPEA’s complaint alleges that Dendurent violated that policy when she directed the books to be sent to her at the district office.

Erfurth said union leadership met privately with Holland on Oct. 20 and Dendurent on Oct. 21 to discuss the incidents at the Seward High School library, with a goal of allowing the district to explain its side of the story, but that the meeting with Dendurent didn’t provide “any adequate explanation or justification” for her actions.

“I don’t want to work in a school district where someone at that level feels comfortable doing something like that,” Erfurth said.

Holland said he is unable to comment on ongoing investigations and that even when the investigation concludes, information related to district personnel will remain confidential.

“We did have a staff member bring a concern forward and so a district office staff member did ask for those books to be sent over,” Holland said.

Holland confirmed that the books sent to the district office have since been returned to Seward High School and are currently available for checkout in the library. Moving forward, he said he will be reviewing the process to make sure there are no more “delay(s)” in getting books to a site in the future.

“Across the district no books have been banned or restricted anywhere,” Holland said.

Speaking to larger community conversations about censorship at libraries, Holland said libraries should reflect students’ diverse lives and that the “sanctity” of libraries as a resource for students needs to be protected.

“I know there’s a lot of controversy going on already in the community regarding libraries,” Holland said. “We, and I, believe in the sanctity of those libraries, that those are important places for students to access information they need (and) that all kids need to be able to read material that means something to them and reflects their own life and their own diversity.”

A pattern of exclusion

Incidents at other schools have some similarly concerned.

Winter Marshall-Allen, a special education teacher of individuals with intensive needs at Homer High School, said she was asked in September to remove flags she had displayed in her classroom, including a pride flag featuring a solidarity fist. The request was made by the assistant principal at Homer High School and resolved at the district level.

Marshall-Allen said in an Oct. 21 interview with the Clarion that she cleared her flags with Homer High School administrators prior to hanging them up in the hallway outside of her classroom, but that the assistant principal did not see the solidarity fist displayed in the center of the flag because it was rolled up.

Marshall-Allen was told that the fist is associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and could therefore be considered “political,” meaning it violates board policy.

She was also directed to remove progressive pride door markers that had hung outside of her classroom since 2018. Progressive pride flags feature symbols of support for trans individuals and people of color. Marshall-Allen now has a progressive pride flag hanging behind her desk in her classroom.

Marshall-Allen worked with Erfurth to file a grievance with the district alleging that being asked to remove the flag violated four sections of board policy as well as a section of their collective bargaining agreement that addresses academic freedom.

Out of an Oct. 8 hearing that included Marshall-Allen, Erfurth and Homer High School Principal Doug Waclawski came a joint resolution between the union and the school district: Teachers can display “symbols of inclusion” — including the progressive pride flag — as long as those symbols do not “simultaneously exclude other groups.”

“This ensures that the symbol(s) of inclusion are suitable for study or discussion in a particular class and allow for the teacher to provide adequate and appropriate factual information,” hearing documents shared with the Clarion say.

In a separate incident, Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School Principal Janae Van Slyke apologized to fourth grade parents after teachers read from Ann Braden’s 2021 book “Flight of the Puffin,” which has nonbinary characters.

“While the overall theme of the book is acceptance, there are topics that are best left to families to discuss,” Van Slyke wrote in an Oct. 1 message to parents. “Our school’s role is to focus on academics, and this book is not approved KPBSD curricular material for instruction. We regret that this book was read aloud to your child and we are taking steps to ensure that only age appropriate material is read in class.”

Students react

Michelle Wells, a senior at Homer High School and one of Marshall-Allen’s students, said seeing the progressive pride flag come down made her and other students mad. Wells identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and said the symbols send a positive message to all students, regardless of whether or not they are LGBTQ+. Seeing the flag, Wells said, makes her feel welcome.

“She immediately accepted me for who I was,” Wells said of Marshall-Allen.

A 2020 Gallup poll conducted among people in the United States found that nearly 16% of Gen Z, or people born between 1997 and 2002, identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Making academic resources available to students in a library setting keeps students from trying to find answers on their own, such as on the internet, Soldotna High School 2021 graduate Olivia Davis said.

Davis, who identifies as queer and uses she/they pronouns — and asked that they be used interchangably in this story — said the materials purchased for Seward High School would have been beneficial while she was a KPBSD student.

Davis, who is now studying political science at Montana State University, said in an Oct. 26 interview with the Clarion that they struggled to come to terms with their sexuality but found support through friends and teachers with whom they felt comfortable sharing.

As the number of young people who identify as LGBTQ+ continues to grow, Davis said, making those academic resources available is “one of the most important things the district can do.”

“I think it could have saved me a lot of mental strife,” they said.

She also gave words of encouragement to students struggling with their identity: “Whatever you feel is normal and valid and you should never have to justify yourself to receive the education you deserve.”

Looking ahead

In the wake of these incidents, a number of efforts are being made to address issues of diversity and inclusion.

The Human Civil Rights Committee met for the first time Wednesday and will investigate the incidents and organize for potential solutions. Erfurth named Wear the committee chair and Marshall-Allen the committee co-chair. Erfurth also issued an open call for reports of discrimination.

Wear said Thursday that the committee is still getting off the ground, but will focus on ensuring students feel safe at school and that board policies meant to make them feel safe are being followed by the district.

“The school building needs to be a safe haven,” she said. “All students, even if they don’t agree with each other’s points of view, should still respect each other and they should still stand up for each other’s rights.”

In a release issued Friday, the Homer Pride Committee signed onto a call for accountability on the part of KPBSD and alleged that district decisions regarding these issues did not consider the First Amendment rights of teachers and students when it requested the flags be taken down.

“The Homer Pride Committee asks the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to re-evaluate the actions of leadership and how they align with the School Boards resolutions on Diversity and Inclusion,” the release says. “Their resistance to inclusion is often a lack of clarity or knowledge and empathy for what is not understood.”

Holland said Wednesday the incidents present an opportunity to ensure that staff are knowledgeable about the district’s policies.

“I look at this as a good time to reemphasize our policy when it comes to instructional materials,” Holland said.

The district is also working to bring itself into compliance with Title IX — a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, Holland said. The district’s human resources director and new Title IX coordinator have already been trained in how to handle allegations of discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, and district staff will undergo training beginning Jan. 3.

Wear said she believes the recent events can help spur discussions that have the potential to make the district more inclusive.

“I think it’s gonna be time for people to start having some uncomfortable conversations, and it’s OK to have those conversations,” Wear said. “It’s OK to respect each other for their opinions, but we can’t try to shut down opinions or take information away.”

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

A progressive pride flag hangs in teacher Winter Marshall-Allen’s classroom at Homer High School on Friday. Marshall-Allen was previously asked to remove the flag and other symbols displayed in her classroom, but was allowed to put it back up after she filed a grievance with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. (Photo courtesy winter Marshall-Allen)

A progressive pride flag hangs in teacher Winter Marshall-Allen’s classroom at Homer High School on Friday. Marshall-Allen was previously asked to remove the flag and other symbols displayed in her classroom, but was allowed to put it back up after she filed a grievance with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. (Photo courtesy winter Marshall-Allen)

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