“Everyone deserves a safe learning environment”

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Kenai Peninsula Education Association Civil Rights Committee Chairperson and Librarian of Soldotna High School Tamra Wear testifies before the Kenai Peninsula School District School Board at a board meeting school on Monday, November 1, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara / Peninsula Clarion)

The treatment of LGBTQ + students within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District dominated public testimony at the Education Council meeting on Monday evening, where several staff and students advocated for the district’s LGBTQ + community. . LGBTQ + is an acronym for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and others who do not identify as straight or cisgender. The acronym is sometimes extended with an “I” or “A” to include intersex and asexual people.

The testimony follows a tumultuous month for the district when it comes to LGBTQ + students. Several incidents of bullying or exclusion against LGBTQ + students were reported in October, ranging from the removal of pride flags at Homer High School and allegations of censorship of books on LGBTQ + issues at Seward High School.

These incidents prompted the establishment of a human rights committee by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Education Association, the union representing teachers and certified staff in the district. This committee met for the first time last week and is chaired by Tamra Wear, the Librarian of Soldotna High School.

“A lot has happened in the last month,” Wear said at Monday’s board meeting. “It will be important in the future that people are prepared to have difficult conversations. We need to set an example for our students. It will also be important for us to follow the policy of the board of directors, but also to ensure that these policies promote inclusion, tolerance and equality for all.

KPEA also reached a resolution with the school district last month, which says teachers can display “inclusion symbols,” 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 stickers from her classroom, including 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 people and people of color, can be displayed.

Among those who expressed support for the district’s LGBTQ + community during their testimony on Monday were district staff, community members and students. KPBSD Roving Advisor Natali Jones read Alexandra Penfold’s 2018 children’s book “All Welcome,” which she says is the kind of acceptance she wants to see for KPBSD students.

“Our strength is our diversity, a shelter from adversity,” says one line from the book.

While several people who testified said they supported clear symbols of inclusion in schools, Ryan Culbertson, a parent at Sterling, said the district should put more emphasis on flags that represent everyone , such as the American and Alaskan flags.

“A flag doesn’t make a safe environment,” Culbertson said. “Shooting them doesn’t make a space dangerous. You don’t teach inclusion by singling out a group… we have to come together with the denominators that truly unite us all.

The council also heard from LGBTQ + students in the district, who shared stories about the experience and testimony of bullying in the community, and who spoke about the support provided by “safe spaces”.

Thea Person, who uses the pronouns she / they and is a junior at Homer High School, said she experienced “hostility” to LGBTQ + students at school and that the students deserved to learn without having the feeling of having to hide their identity. These incidents of hostility, Person said, contribute to the communities that LGBTQ + students form with each other.

“What’s often difficult to achieve from an outside perspective is that as students, especially in the LGBTQIA + community… we tell each other our stories,” Person said. “We are forming a community to try to protect each other from physical and verbal abuse, slurs and objects thrown at us – at children. Personally, I’ve been insulted and hostile just for daring to wear a pride flag and I think in a learning environment it’s just not productive.

Kathleen Kuhn, a senior at Homer Flex High School, shared stories about people she knows who have been bullied for being part of the LGBTQ + community in addition to her own experiences of discrimination. Kuhn, who is blatantly bisexual, said she was called insults, asked “invasive” questions about her sexuality and people made inappropriate comments about her because of the way she identified herself. Kuhn said she and her best friend were cheated on by a boy who called them homophobic slurs after seeing them walking down the hallway together. Kuhn said she believed it wouldn’t have happened if her friend had been of the opposite sex.

“There are ways to help and ensure that your school is a safe, tolerant and inclusive space for young queer students, such as including clubs for LGBTQ students and their allies, branded safe spaces, students to make their voices heard, believing students when they are being treated unfairly and adults are allies, ”said Kuhn. “Everyone deserves to have a safe learning environment and to be treated with respect by those around them. I hope we can move forward towards inclusiveness, acceptance and ending these behaviors towards open and proud LGBTQIA students. ”

Responding to concerns raised about how LGBTQ + students are supported, KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland told Monday’s meeting that the district is committed to providing a “safe and inclusive environment” for all students. He also highlighted the proactive steps taken by the district to ensure this happens, including the new resolution on Symbols of Inclusion, bringing the district in line with Federal Title IX guidelines and ensuring that staff in the district is clear on council policies.

“Hearing these stories tonight from our students who are touched – I think it underscores that we need to stay alert, stay focused and stay true to creating an environment in a school setting is good for all students” Holland said. “I’ll never have a problem telling that to anyone, and I know this district is committed to the same.”

Contact reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at [email protected]

Sterling's parent Ryan Culbertson testifies before the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District School Board on Monday, November 1, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska.  (Ashlyn O ?? Hara / Clarion Peninsula)

Sterling’s parent Ryan Culbertson testifies before the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District School Board on Monday, November 1, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara / Peninsula Clarion)

KPBSD Roving Advisor Natali Jones reads ??  All are welcome ??  by Alexandra Penfold in support of the LGBTQ + community at a Kenai Peninsula School District School Board meeting on Monday November 1, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska.  The treatment of LGBTQ + students within the school district dominated public testimony at the Monday night board meeting.  (Ashlyn O ?? Hara / Clarion Peninsula)

KPBSD Roving Councilor Natali Jones reads Alexandra Penfold’s ‘All Welcome’ in support of the LGBTQ + community at a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Education Council meeting on Monday November 1, 2021 in Soldotna , Alaska. The treatment of LGBTQ + students within the school district dominated public testimony at the board meeting on Monday night. (Ashlyn O’Hara / Peninsula Clarion)



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