An openly gay member of the Kearney Board of Education has joined those criticizing the school district in northwest Missouri for secretly removing quotes written by two gay students under their yearbook photos.
Board member Matthew Ryan Hunt, in a statement on Facebook, said he’s receiving hundreds of calls and social media posts from parents, students, and Kearney High School alumni about the removal of the quotes.
“None of my fellow board members or district administrators involved in this incident knows what it’s like to be openly gay in such a small town like Kearney,” Hunt wrote. “None of them know the sacrifices made and the courage shown by these two individuals to come out as gay in high school.”
Students making a comment for posterity under their senior portraits in the yearbook is a longtime tradition at high schools.
Joey Slivinski and Thomas Swartz took the opportunity to celebrate their sexual orientation, with quotes that each believed were inspirational and reflected who they are.
“Of course I dress well. I didn’t spend all that time in the closet for nothing,” Slivinski’s quote read.
“If ‘Harry Potter’ taught us anything, it’s that no one should have to live in the closet,” read Swartz’s.
But when Slivinski and Swartz got their yearbooks, they found blank space under their names because the district, without warning, had removed the quotes.
District officials later, in a statement to parents, apologized to the students but said they decided to remove the quotes over concerns that they could “potentially offend” other students.
“In an effort to protect our students, quotes that could potentially offend another student or groups of students are not published. It is the school’s practice to err on the side of caution,” the statement read.
“Doing so in this case had the unintentional consequence of offending the very students the practice was designed to protect. We sincerely apologize to those students,” it continued. “We acknowledge our mistake and will use it as a learning opportunity to improve in the future.”
In a new statement released Monday afternoon, Kearney Superintendent Bill Nicely said the district accepts full blame for the removal of the quotes. But he also gives a different explanation in his statement for why the quotes were omitted.
“During the yearbook editing process, several quotes, not just the ones seen in the news, were omitted for varying reasons,” Nicely’s statement says. “Doing so was an error on the part of the school district. As a result of a breakdown in communication we did not reach out to the students before publication. Had we done so, the quotes would have been permitted.”
His statement goes on to say, “it was never the intention of the school district to offend or hurt anyone, and we are deeply sorry for any pain or frustration that resulted due to this error.”
On his Facebook page, Slivinski wrote: “I have always supported the Kearney School District. I have done nothing but always say good things about our schools. I always felt like I was accepted for being myself. I’m not one to post my feelings on social media, but today Kearney School District showed me that I am not accepted for being who I am.”
Other students and friends of the two boys took to social media to support them and condemn the district’s actions. One of the posts was shared on the Facebook page of Human Rights Campaign Kansas City.
Board member Hunt, in his Facebook statement, praised the district for its apology and said, “I’m pleased to hear that the district’s intent was to keep students safe, however, we didn’t fulfill that promise and we didn’t protect these two young men.”
The statement went on to say, “The district’s intent was to remove potentially offensive quotes and instead they offended the LGBTQ community in our community and in our schools.
He mentioned that other students in other years had posts that could have been considered offensive to some but were not removed from the yearbook.
Hunt said he saw no reason for school officials to remove the quotes that Slivinski and Swartz wrote. He that the last two years, the district allowed such quotes as:
“Girl, you’re thicker than oatmeal.”
“I’ll steal your girlfriend.”
“It’s not that I don’t like you… oh wait, yes, yes its true.”
“I would have voted for Trump because I don’t want a girl President, I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“It’s not called being gay, it’s called being FABULUS.”
Hunt, the first openly gay member of the school board, said in his statement that he was chosen by the community to be the voice on this subject and to reach out to the district to find out why it happened.
“I am here to publicly say that I support their quotes, along with many community members, and feel ashamed that they weren’t given the same respect as other students,” Hunt’s statement says.
“They had no warning that their quotes would be removed. They will forever look at a blank space under their photograph that should have been filled with something meaningful that expressed themselves as human beings.”