Two JoCo districts add protections for gay and transgender students and teachers

A unanimous decision by the Olathe school board will make the district safer for gay and transgender students and teachers, say parents, educators and their allies.

The board on Thursday voted to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the district’s non-discrimination policies.

“The addition of sexual orientation and gender identity to the non-discrimination policies will make a huge difference across the board in our schools for your teachers and for increasing that climate of inclusivity and really making schools … safe spaces for all students,” said Wendy Budetti, policy coordinator for GLSEN of Greater Kansas City, a group which works to create inclusive school environments for LGBTQ students.

The decision came four days after another Johnson County district, DeSoto, added similar protections to its non-discrimination policies, following requests from DeSoto and Mill Valley high schools last month.

And it follows a 2017 incident when members of an Olathe Northwest High School LGBTQ club said students hurled derogatory insults and objects at them at a homecoming parade. More than 150 people gathered outside the high school a week later to show support for LGBTQ students.

The Olathe decision prompted applause from the audience, some of whom spoke or read letters from those in favor of the updated policy, including a mom who wanted to protect her transgender child from bullying and a lesbian teacher who recently became engaged but felt she had to lie about her sexual orientation to her students and colleagues to protect her job.

Budetti said, “These policies will allow teachers to be their authentic selves in the school buildings, which creates a better environment for all of our students.”

The district decisions in Olathe and DeSoto were celebrated by LGBTQ community groups, even as some have expressed disappointment in recent weeks that stronger protections for gay and transgender people have not been embraced by Johnson County city councils.

Last week, the LGBTQ-rights group Equality Kansas criticized Olathe City Council’s approval of a “weak” resolution disavowing discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Equality Kansas and other advocacy groups had asked for the city to pass an ordinance that bans discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation, especially because Kansas and Missouri legislatures have yet to offer such protections. But the city’s resolution did not include a means of enforcement.

Olathe school board member LeEtta Felter said she’d like to see state and federal lawmakers expand protections for Kansans.

“We all know someone who will be affected by these policies that municipalities, commissions and boards are doing in lieu of the proper authorities, the federal and state legislature,” Felter said Thursday. “We need it to happen at the real levels, where it will actually have teeth to it.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.