(Lander, WY) – Dozens of students, staff, parents, veterans and various stakeholders were in attendance at last week’s Fremont County (FCSD) #1 School Board meeting, where a list of protected classes was removed from the district’s discrimination policy.
In a 4-3 vote, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, marital status, and pregnancy were removed as specifically mentioned protected classes from the district policy, which should be noted applies to both staff and students (there used to be different policies for each group).
The policy, which was voted upon in 2019 and was last revised in 2020, states in part: “Any employee, student and/or the parents/guardian of any student (hereafter complainant) who believe they have been subject to discrimination or harassment on the basis of actual or perceived age, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, marital status, pregnancy, or disability, which in any way adversely affects their employment, access to, participation in, ability to benefit from, admissions, membership, or otherwise results in inequality in any school-sponsored organizations, clubs, facilities, activities, or programs, is encouraged to utilize the due process procedure set forth below as a mechanism to resolve his/her complaint.”
The Lead Up
At the April 5th Board meeting, discussion was had in concerns to Policy AC-R: Discrimination/Harassment Complaint Procedure, which had recently been sent for review to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR).
At that time, OCR suggested changes to the policy that the District chose to implement, and in addition school legal counsel advised that the phrase “actual or perceived” be changed to just “actual,” stating that statute and regulations do not have ‘perceived’.
The idea was also brought up to legal counsel that the list of protected classes; “sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, marital status, or pregnancy,” be taken out, but school legal counsel also advised that they would leave specific categories listed as is.
Despite the advice of the OCR and legal counsel, Vice-Chairperson Scott Jensen then suggested reducing the classes to those listed in Wyoming statute, which would just include “age, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability.”
“We’ve added additional protected classes on our statute that aren’t defined in federal or state law,” Jensen commented.
“Sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, marital status, and pregnancy. I don’t think we need those extra divisions in the policy. I think we should strike those and just go with what is defined in statute.”
When asked why the change was needed, Jensen stated that he felt it caused unnecessary division, and also cited that only one documented instance of reported discrimination in the last 8 years had occurred in the district, which ended up being classified as “unfounded.”
“So if we don’t have a problem of it in the district then we don’t need to over divide,” Scott concluded.
Board Treasurer Michelle Escudero pointed out that when the revision was made in 2020 to add gender identity and Veteran status to the protected classes, a number of students, staff, and community members came out in support of that process, and suggested that the Council make this discussion very public if they were change it and reduce the categories.
The matter was brought back up at the May 17 Board meeting, where over 40 public commenters made their voices heard, albeit in the agreed upon two minute timeframe.
While there were those who were in support of making the change, an overwhelming majority of the public commenters felt the policy needed to stay the same, ranging from students, staff, veterans in the community, to parents worried about how the change might affect the amount of bullying their children go through.
While this majority had various reasons for wanting to keep the policy as is, a large portion of the group focused on how it would affect the LGBTQ+ students, who they feel are facing more bullying and harassment than their peers who don’t identify as such.
Emily Wilson, the first speaker and LVHS English teacher, commented that the district motto of “Every student every day” would not be followed if those groups were removed, and if done so might make staff and students feel unprotected.
Nine other educators both past and present agreed with the sentiment that the policy should stay as is, two of whom read letters from LGBTQ students who didn’t feel comfortable speaking on their own behalf.
LVHS Science teacher Todd Burke read one of those letters written by students, which at one point stated “It’s not a choice, it is a part of us. Taking these protections away, takes away human rights.”
Nate Shoutis, another LVHS teacher, attempted to read a letter written by 10 students in the LGBTQ+ club at the high school, after they reported two threats of mass murder against them.
He requested to have 6 minutes to read the letter on their behalf, but was denied due to the 2 minute time limit, resulting in one of many heated moments during this portion of the evening.
In the letter, students cited two specific incidences where physical violence was threatened based on their gender identity and orientation: one involving a student overheard saying he was going to “bring his guns to school and line up all the (redacted) outside and shoot them;” and another where a different student was heard saying, “We should kill all (redacted). We should lock them in the school and set fire to it so we can watch them all burn.”
Shoutis did state the administration addressed the comments made by those students, but no further action was taken when they were deemed to be “not a threat.”
The letter also went on to claim that members of the group had been threatened to be “beaten and raped,” and that one student was groped to “prove that she was a girl.”
Shoutis then requested that the Board “make a public statement directly to the LGTBQ+ students telling them that you see them, that you understand that they are being bullied and harassed more than other students, and that you have their backs and will do whatever you can do to protect them from harm.”
Shoutis took aim at Jensen specifically for being the one initiating the change, and asked that he “take this a step farther and publicly apologize.”
“Your actions, in trying to remove these protections are sending a clear message to those students that they are not supported in our schools,’ Shoutis commented. “You are doing damage.
“Try to learn more about our LGBTQ+ community through direct relationships with us. Our country is divided and we aren’t going to heal it with two minute comments in shitty boardrooms. We need one on one connections with each other,” Shoutis concluded before suggesting he and Jensen meet and have a heart-to-heart.
Chairperson Kail responded by defending Vice-Chairperson Jensen, and advising commenters to not speak to Board members disrespectfully.
A few students also spoke about their experiences being on the receiving end of discrimination and bullying due to their gender identity and orientation.
“I am not angry, these tears in my eyes are not from anger, these emotions are from exhaustion from having to fight for every breath when I walk into school,” one student stated.
“You say you want to hear our youth speak, well we’re here, we’re speaking, but the real question is will you listen?” the student concluded as they spoke through tears.
Michael Holland, a Behavioral Health Clinician for Fremont Counseling Services, discussed the high suicide rate among LGTBQ+ youth, and when his allotted time ran out while discussing an assessment completed on youth who were experiencing suicidal thoughts, the next person chose to forgo their comment to finish his.
Numerous parents echoed the concerns of Holland and the other mental health professionals who spoke about the effects of bullying and worried that removing the protected classes would lead to even more bullying and potential suicidal thoughts for LGBTQ+ students.
Walt and Janet Seeley from the Trinity Episcopal Church in Lander also requested that the policy stay the same, citing their work with youth who have attempted suicide because of bullying stemming from the gender identies and orientation.
“Discrimination has created these protected classes. Nobody is asking for special treatment, they’re asking for equal treatment,” Walt commented.
While conversations about how the policy change would affect LGBTQ+ students and staff took up most of the public comment period, a few veterans also voiced their displeasure at being one of the groups removed from the protected classes.
Darin Buse stated that he took the change personal as someone who was and identifies as a combat veteran, before adding that changing the policy would no longer acknowledge “a society that is very different with different views.”
Kevin Wilson, who showed up along with several other VFW post members, had “no idea” why veterans would be removed from this policy.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to take that out, I have no problem with the other protected classes in there either. It seems like we’re on the frontlines of a culture war here in Lander that we don’t need to be on. I encourage you to keep the policy the way it is.”
Forest Parker, the Quartermaster at the Lander VFW Popo Agie Post 954 and who spent 34 years in U.S. military, also stated that he felt changing the policy would negatively affect veterans, citing his years working with vets who were discriminated against in some capacity.
George Hampton, another veteran and Lander resident, agreed that the policy should stay the same.
While the majority of those in attendance were not in favor of the proposed changes, a few did speak in favor of them.
Karen Wetzel stated she was concerned that creating specific protected classes might give them too much power, and felt no one group should get any kind of preferential treatment.
“There will always be bullies and discrimination in the minds of the few, no matter if it is against the black population, the native population, the LGBT population, or any minority, we cannot change how people feel, even though we may think the way they feel is wrong.”
Margarette Jacobson and her daughter recently moved to Lander from California, and she commented that keeping the policy as-is would result in “victimized classes” of people.
Her daughter added that she felt victimized and discriminated against because she disagrees with “singling out” those who look different, and felt that giving too much attention to those differences will only lead to more division.
Phillip and Andrea Strong also spoke out against the protected classes, citing their religious beliefs as well as the belief that gender identity and orientation are “subjective things.”
Phillip was met with jeers from most of the crowd after stating his comments.
The Final Decision
After the public comment period ended, it was time for Board discussion.
“I want to dispel a couple of myths, the first being there was a concern of why now? There is no grand conspiracy for that,” Jensen first stated.
“The policy came up for review, so it appeared, to me at least, that other changes were warranted as well. Every student listening and watching should know that they are valued. You should be leery of any adult that tells you you are somehow a victim by default just because you belong to a particular group.”
“It’s probably safe to say every person in this room at some point in their life,” Jensen continued. “We witnessed some bullying this evening. A lot of people felt comfortable bullying this gentleman because of his religious views. Bullying is something that we deal with, it is a fact of life that bullying is going to happen.”
Jensen then went on to state that the district takes bullying very seriously, and that they act on every single complaint that they receive.
“Every single complaint is not recorded,” a crowd member then commented as others began talking over Jensen, resulting Chairman Kail to strike his gavel and call for order.
“We can reconvene without the audience here as long as we have press there, I don’t think you want to be the reason to deny all the rest of these folks from being here this evening,” Kail told the audience member.
“Discrimination is not the same as bullying necessarily,” Jensen later added before stating that he feels the current wording is causing more division within the community.
“This doesn’t change the protection that Veterans receive. There is an employment law that covers Veterans, marital status, and pregnancy. Gender identity, sexual orientation are a part of sex, the Supreme Court ruled that in Bostock v. Clayton County. Nobody’s protection changes one bit.”
When Jensen went on to state “We don’t have a systemic problem in our district,” members the crowd once again interjected, with the same gentleman who was warned earlier shouting “I almost lost my son back in January.”
A verbal scuffle could then be heard as the man was asked to leave, with one member stating “this isn’t safe anymore.”
“I wish we could have this type of crowd every week at these meetings, I wish you all were to come here when we’re talking about discipline and standards-based grading, and real issues that impact our schools,” Board member Taylor Jacobs then commented.
“There are a lot of other issues in our school, and you guys not coming out to the meetings shows that this is obviously something that is concerning to you, but it also shows maybe you lack interest in other areas,” Jacobs continued as some members of the crowd began to laugh.
“That’s alright, you have the right to laugh,” Jacobs responded before saying she was “disappointed that the minority is here tonight had the opportunity to show the inclusivity that they preached about, and this was not the case tonight.”
“I think we need to look at the case laws and things that have happened since the Civil Rights Act was put in place,’ Board Member Kathy Hitt commented.
“Times have changed. Things have evolved, even the Supreme Court ruling in the Bostock case that Scott brought up. In case law it says that if something has been appealed, it then becomes the precedent in that law. We can’t ignore that as an educative body, that there is case law here that says that these groups are recognized as part of the discrimination policy.
“Our own attorney advised we keep it the way it is,” Hitt continued. “I would just suggest to this group that we look at case law, then change the way that the listing is if needed.”
“There is a lot of emotion here tonight, there is a lot of emotion for me, because I was bullied,” commented Board member Teresa Nirider.
“Bullying exists no matter what we look like no matter who we are or who we identify with.”
She then added that acceptance begins with parents teaching it at a young age. “We can add or take away, we can put in all the words we want but in all honesty, this policy is not going to protect somebody from committing suicide. Look up the definition of fallacy. This is a fallacy. What’s going to keep our children safe is school administration.”
“It’s not us versus them, it’s all of us,” she later continued. “Protected classes? What about the fat kid? What about the skinny kid? What about the atheist kid? What about the Christian kid. Where are our rules? Why is it just sexual orientation and gender identity? Why are we arguing about just these classes?”
“Because you’re trying to remove them” a crowd member then yelled out as Chairperson Kail once again had to call for order.
“We added them in 2020 and half of you people weren’t here. When are we going to stop? Have any of our administrators heard about furries? Do we have any furries in our school district? When are we going to add furries to our policy? Where does it stop?”
“The goal of the policy is that we want to create an inclusive environment for our students to learn, and create an environment for our staff to do their best work,” commented Board Treasurer Michelle Escudero.
“I don’t see where there’s harm being done to have this specific language. I think that right now in our world, the LGBTQ community is at the Civil Rights juncture right now.”
She then brought up what it was like to be a woman in this community who is worrying about losing their job if they get pregnant.
“That is a real fear and pregnancy is an important thing to have listed out. We also know that there is discrimination against our veterans. Yes, they are protected through employment, however, it’s important that we really recognize a group that’s in need of that protection, and that’s how I see these protected classes.”
“Having the protected classes does not fall in line with our motto of “every student every day,” commented Board member Brett Berg, who stated that having the protected classes would leave some feeling left out.
“I’m not in favor of anything that creates divisions among our students or staff. Everybody should have the same level of respect.”
Chairperson Kail concluded the Board discussion by saying, “Neither the federal level, state level, or the state education level includes these classes in their policies. Sexual orientation, specifically transgender rights, are protected under “sex,” so Bostock itself tells us we don’t have to include those rights in order to protect them.”
The motion was then put to vote, with Scott Jensen, Taylor Jacobs, Brett Berg, and Jared Kail voting in favor of removing the protected classes, and Kathy Hitt, Michelle Escudero, and Teresa Nirider voting against.