Community split on education of gender, sexuality in public schools
Citing a recent field trip to the Vilar, its sex-ed opt out process and more, residents opined about what topics should be taught in schools
During its Wednesday, May 10 meeting, the Eagle County School District’s board of education heard testimony from various community members on the education of students on topics of gender and sexuality.
For about an hour, concerned parents, teachers and taxpayers expressed their opinions on a recent Vilar STARS field trip that sparked controversy, the district’s opt-out process for sex education as well as whether certain topics such as gender and sexuality have a place in the classroom.
In addressing these comments broadly, the district’s Superintendent Philip Qualman thanked the community members for sharing their thoughts.
“We take those comments seriously and try to learn from them and try to make sure that this district reflects everybody in our community as much as we possibly can,” Qualman said. “We are a public school district and we represent everybody.”
At the board’s last meeting, held on Wednesday, April 12, Qualman addressed concerns the district had heard from parents about a STARS field trip in April to the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek. On Wednesday, April 5, third through fifth-grade students from several elementary schools attended Cirque Flip Fabrique’s performance of “Muse.” Prior to the show, Qualman was notified by Vilar Executive Director Owen Hutchinson that the production “lightly addresses themes of gender and questions the various roles and expectations of men and women.”
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In issuing his apology on April 12, Qualman not only took responsibility for the fact that “some of our students were exposed to a show that included controversial content,” but outlined the ways in which the district would seek to rebuild trust in the future.
Specifically, he outlined two main changes to its field trip programming related to the incident. This included active notification of parents as to the content of field trips as well as an in-depth evaluation of all the district’s agreements with local youth-serving nonprofits to ensure “greater specificity and accountability.”
However, despite the apology and assurances, several concerned citizens and parents attended the May 10 meeting to express their ongoing concerns about the show and its content.
Staci Walls, who indicated that she attended the field trip with her elementary-aged daughter, spoke about her specific concerns with the content.
“What these children witnessed was nothing short of pornography,” Walls said, stating that it contained “provocative, sexually mature content” as well as “erotic, seductive, sexual images, sexual messages and sexual themes” from the performance. “It’s stuff like this that they’re constantly exposed to without the parents’ understanding or permission,” she added.
One resident, Jason Platt, acknowledged the superintendent’s apology, but said that he felt he and other community members deserved an apology about the content.
“The content of this show has exposed a generation of minors in Vail Valley to sexually inappropriate images and content that is disrespectful to child’s innocence,” Platt said, later adding he was “looking for a school that prioritizes morality, virtue, character, self-control and amazingly enough, academics.”
Mindy Johnson, reading a statement on behalf of Heather Bergquist, said that the content of the Vilar show “makes me wonder what other types of harmful and inappropriate sexual content our children are being exposed to behind closed doors under the guise of gender equity and gender equality, that is also harming our children.”
Opting out of sex-ed
On Wednesday, there were also various comments made about the district’s opt-out process for sex education.
In his own report later in the meeting, Qualman gave some information about the district’s sexual education policy. While sex ed is not required to be taught in public schools in Colorado, the Colorado Department of Education “does provide formal standards and guidelines for how to teach it in districts that elect to teach sex ed,” he said.
“ECSD thinks the content is important, so we teach it,” Qualman said, adding that state statute also requires these districts to teach it comprehensively and transparently.
Under the latter, the district is in compliance with the statute that allows parents to opt-out “for any reason or no reason at all,” he added.
“We have chosen to implement an initial all-or-nothing opt-out. If an opt-out is received, schools will reach out to parents to see if there are any of the available lessons that they would like their child to experience,” Qualman clarified about its current process. “We believe this will allow for maximum participation, maximum transparency for all parents, and empowerment.”
Qualman clarified with the Vail Daily on Monday that the district recently “considered providing an opt-out form that itemized the lesson topics, thinking parents may allow their child to participate in some of the lessons, instead of none.”
However, not everyone was supportive of this “a la carte” opt-out process, as evidenced by some public comments on Wednesday. As such, the district decided to keep the process as is. The concerns on Wednesday were centered on the discussed possibility that families might have been able to opt out of the LGBTQ portion of maturation education.
Mary Ann McGinnis, a middle school counselor for the district, expressed her concerns about this specific opt-out.
“I believe that this decision does a disservice to all of our students and I want the board to understand how difficult it is to have students leave for this portion without making other students including themselves to feel uncomfortable or hurt,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis added that this education “really refers to helping students learn how to be kind and respectful to all people.”
This includes giving them appropriate and accurate terminology and “allows us to have healthy conversations with them, just about treating everyone with dignity and respect,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis added that “allowing families to opt their students out of this is a great option and has worked for us thus far when they opt out of the entire program as opposed to just a section.”
Shelby Partridge, a local resident and teacher, asked the district to reconsider its decision to allow parents to opt out of specific topics. Shelby Partridge advocated for “only one opt-out option for all comprehensive human sexuality programming.”
“If we allow families to opt out of discussions around sexuality, then what are we left with?” Shelby Partridge said. “The standards are built to address sexuality over and over and over again; isn’t that the point? To educate and support healthy sexuality or is it to promote healthy heterosexual sexuality?”
One local high school student, Emit Brown, spoke at the meeting about the importance of this education for all students, not just those that are members of the LGBTQ community. Brown called the ability to opt out of the LGBTQ section of maturation “damaging” for all.
“Allowing this means that parents get to make the decision for their children. Allowing these conversations not only keeps your kids safe but it also educates those who do not identify as such, it can lessen intolerance,” Brown said. “Please consider this is a huge step backward, and this curriculum should be taught to everyone.”
What content belongs in school?
Ultimately, many of the comments made on Wednesday, were around the question of what topics should be taught in schools.
Barb Wendell, who stated she was there as a taxpayer and former teacher, expressed her belief that “sex and gender have no place in grade schools.”
“You’re poisoning our brains; you’re predators and perverts and I don’t appreciate it,” said Levi Ellis. Ellis noted that his concerns were that “activists” were “wanting to talk to our students about gender and sexuality at a young age,” and that this was “very inappropriate.”
Many parents that spoke pushed for more “controversial topics” to be left for parents to teach to their children.
“I don’t believe that the public school is a place where the kids need to be having these conversations when they haven’t fully lived yet,” said Lee Adkins, a local parent.
Adkins added that while he knows teenagers are struggling with trying to figure out who they are, “a classroom with your peers is not the right place to have those conversations, it’s not the right place to discern those things.”
“There are a time and a place for professionals to help you work through that stuff, for your families to be able to support you and help you work through that stuff. I just don’t think it belongs in our classrooms,” he said.
One parent, Celena Olden, expressed concerns about “sexual indoctrination in our public schools,” stating that there were a number of books in the schools that she felt are “pushing an agenda about minor-attracted people and different sexual twists.”
“You’re not leaving it to the parents to discuss this in the privacy of their own home, in the family unit. We did not accept or qualify you as co-parents of our children with sexual indoctrination,” Olden said.
Ashley Albrecht in expressing her concerns about the Vilar show, said her concerns were rooted in “keeping controversial topics out of the classroom, period.”
“I, as a parent, and I alone, will teach controversial topics with my child. I pay you to teach my child the fundamentals of learning. I expect facts and truth to be the sole source of information for my child and anything that goes beyond that is my jurisdiction, not yours,” Albrecht said.
On the flip side, some who spoke shared the importance of this education in a school environment.
Madison Partridge, the executive director of Mountain Pride, also spoke at Wednesday’s meeting and read statistics from the recent Healthy Kids Colorado Survey data. In this, Partridge shared that “fewer than 40% of students stated they had an affirming home.”
“School is such an important space for our kids to go to because they might not have a home that is accepting, but they might have a school that is talking about diversity, pushing for equity and inclusion in the classroom and showing up for them when so many others don’t,” said Partridge. “When we hear this hateful rhetoric that is going on, we see what these students are feeling and how they have to go through every day experiencing this from people they’re supposed to trust.”
This was something punctuated by Lizzy Owens, a local parent, who gave a recent example of homophobia in Eagle County at a kid’s sporting event.
Owens added that for some students, “learning about the LGBTQ+ community and how to be kind and inclusive, at school, would be the only time these kids will hear non-negative things about this community.”
Owens also stated that having the ability to opt out of the section only “creates more of the already hateful and toxic rhetoric that exists in our society; it breeds bullying.”
“Giving these kids a chance to hear from trusted adults that being gay is OK will give them a lifeline,” Owens said. “Not providing kids with holistic and accurate education around gender, sexuality and relationships is dangerous. This is not about converting straight kids to be gay, it is about keeping gay kids alive.”
Partridge added that creating safe spaces — including supporting schools’ Gay-Straight Alliances — is “so important” for many students.
“We are not grooming kids, no one is pushing an agenda, your kids are not confused, they are figuring out who they are and that’s why important, inclusive education is so valuable for not just the queer students but for everyone so that we can break this hateful rhetoric down to get to the space that we’re just human, these kids are just human, I am just human, teachers in our schools are human and they deserve the dignity and respect that they deserve,” Partridge said.