Gender, sexuality and inclusion again come up at Eagle County School District board meeting

Educators, community members speak to importance of inclusivity, equity

Several educators and nonprofit leaders shared their opinions on inclusivity and equity at the Wednesday, May 24 Eagle County School District Board of Education meeting.
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Over the past several meetings of the Eagle County School District Board of Education, the topics of gender, sexual orientation and equity have permeated public comment. And on Wednesday, May 24, multiple educators, district employees and community members took to the podium to offer their perspectives on the importance and value of the district’s prioritization of equity and inclusion.

During the last two board meetings — on April 12 and May 10 — there has been significant public comment following a recent field trip to the Vilar Performing Arts Center to see a show that featured gender-bending roles in a circus-style performance. The trip drew concerns from parents that the performances contained “provocative, sexually mature content.”

Following a public apology from the school district’s Superintendent Philip Qualman in April, parents at the May 10 meeting expressed ongoing concerns over what the district is teaching students in terms of sex, gender and other “controversial topics.” At the same meeting, advocates for the LGBTQ community spoke about the importance of LGBTQ education in the district’s maturation program. 

“In my perception, the last few board meetings that I have watched have been pretty negative, pretty toxic, and there’s a lot of misinformation and misperception spreading around the community. I just wanted to put a positive spin on things for tonight,” said Rachel Lammers, who has been teaching in the district for 14 years.

Lammers went on to share a list of things that she was grateful for in the district ranging from the simple fact that she loves what she does, that she has a superintendent that listens, and that the district has numerous bilingual and bi-literate programs. She also mentioned the district’s new standards-based grading policy, which she said was “a lot more work, it’s the right work.”

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Ultimately, however, Lammers’ point was that she is “grateful to be part of a district culture that accepts, respects and includes all people so that everyone feels like they belong.”

What is school for?

The message that the district’s work around equity and inclusion is important was reiterated by various individuals who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, including counselors, educators, district employees as well as local nonprofit employees.

Shelby Partridge, another local teacher, commented that it “seems as though there’s an abundance of misinformation, misunderstanding and misinterpretation happening in our community.”

As such, Partridge took three minutes on Wednesday to “shed some light on what my role is as an educator in this valley.”

“Here are things that my role does not entail: indoctrination, grooming, causing identity crises or sexualizing kids. All words used in this very room two weeks ago,” Partridge said.

Partridge, as a math teacher, reflected that their job is not only to teach math but also to build and foster positive relationships with students, which creates a safe place for them to learn.

“I want the students in my classroom to feel cared for, loved, important, respected, seen and heard,” Partridge said. “I provide my students with a safe, inclusive, affirming space to just be a kid. I spend Monday through Friday, eight hours a day building positive relationships and teaching mathematics. I’m not educating kids about sexuality and gender.”

Maddy Kern, a middle school counselor, spoke to the importance of schools “offering social-emotional learning and providing a wide range of clubs during the school day.”

“Kids absolutely do need to learn reading, writing, math, science, social studies and they spend a large portion of their day doing so. However, kids have a hard time learning when they’re being bullied, excluded, having problems with friends, focusing on challenges families are facing, or just trying to figure out who they are as a person,” Kern said.

Kern added that having diverse clubs and opportunities motivates students to come to school, engage and connect with their peers, and makes school safe, fun and engaging. All of which, “helps their learning,” she added.

“Focusing only on academics and ignoring the rest would only disengage our students and I’m sure would drop our achievement as well,” Kern said.

“As public educators, it’s not our duty to inform the beliefs of our students. Instead, we want to teach them how to teach critically, approach different viewpoints with an open mind and navigate the world with kindness. I hope we as a district will continue to reject hate and create a safe learning environment for our students.”

Drake Brown, who has taught in the district for eight years, reflected on his pride in being a teacher in the school district.

“I think what we do is awesome, we put every single kid in a position of success, to the best of our ability and we do it underfunded,” he said.

Why diversity, inclusion matter

Martha Burgess, an education technology specialist for the district, said that having education experiences that embrace diversity creates representation, but also exposes students to experiences outside of their own.

“We know that representation matters. Students getting to see themselves in books and movies and articles and art and live performances are essential to developing a healthy sense of self and sense of belonging. On the flip side, students getting to see books, movies, articles, art and performances with people and cultures of which they are not familiar, is equally important in developing not only a sense of self but also empathy and compassion for the varied experiences of others,” Burgess said.

“These experiences are not a threat to ourselves or family or values, only an opportunity to do what we want our children to do in school: learn.”

Grace Meinberg, the executive director of the Red Ribbon Project, said that “inclusivity is the foundation upon which a thriving education system is built.”

“Inclusivity means ensuring that every student — regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, expression, sexual orientation, socio-economic status or ability — have an equal opportunity to succeed and thrive within our schools. It means actively working to dismantle barriers and biases that might impede a student’s progress or hinder their sense of belonging,” Meinberg said.

Jo Pennock, who addressed the board stating she was the youth advocacy manager for Bright Future Foundation but there as a private citizen, spoke to her experience growing up and where she found safe spaces.

“If we truly want our students to feel loved and understood and safe, it’s not Mountain Pride or drag shows we need to worry about, it’s all the violence they’re experiencing at increasingly high rates,” Pennock said. “The bullying, the constant threat of school shootings, just to name a few of the real threats we should put our efforts toward fixing. I know it can be difficult to talk to kids about sexuality and gender, especially anything other than cis and straight, but doing our kids a disservice by not talking about this stuff more.”

Pennock added that “talking about and destigmatizing these topics are some of the best preventative measures we can take as a community.”

“I’m asking the school board, as a member of the queer community and as a human who cares, please continue to allow these conversations to happen in schools, please continue to be an ally to our kids and please don’t let the loud opinions of a few dissuade us to the wrong side of history,” Pennock concluded.

Moving forward

Brown said that after the May 10 board meeting, he “had students come to this board meeting last time, and they came to me in tears. They said they were experiencing hate.”

“That really disappoints me, because this community is not about hate, this community is about unity,” Brown said.

Ultimately, it was this unity — within the community and schools — that Brown called for looking forward.

“Whether you agree with what’s going on or disagree, I call for unity between the community and schools … It does not matter what your political background is, what your religious beliefs are. None of that should get in the way of what is best for every single kid in Eagle County Schools,” Brown said. “Every single person clearly wants to see these children thrive and develop to become the best adults they can possibly be and that’s what we’re doing here. But let’s do it together.”

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