Shawnee Mission district adds LGBTQ protection despite majority speaking against it

Days before the Shawnee Mission school board voted unanimously Monday night to add LGBTQ protections to the district’s nondiscrimination policy, Pawnee Elementary students were handed rainbow T-shirts.

That did not sit well with some parents and teachers, including Pawnee third-grade teacher Rachel Cherry, who argued the shirt was promoting a controversial “sexual ethic.”

“The rainbow was once a symbol of childhood innocence, but it has since been turned on its head by our culture as a political symbol to represent gay pride and a sexual ethic,” Cherry told the board, holding up the shirt, which was printed with a rainbow heart and the words “Pawnee Elementary.”

She was one of 10 residents who spoke against the district changing its policy to protect LGBTQ staff and students from discrimination. A handful of others spoke in favor of the protections.

After a short discussion, the board voted to adopt the LGBTQ language, following the lead of nearby school districts, including Olathe, Blue Valley and De Soto. More Johnson County cities are adopting nondiscrimination ordinances as well, protecting people from being fired or denied housing or services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“This is our practice. We try to make all kids welcome in this district and try to accommodate them as best as we can,” Shawnee Mission board member Deb Zila said before the vote. “I don’t see it as far reaching. I don’t see the door opening. It’s just like a non-bullying policy in my perspective.”

Throughout the meeting, the rainbow T-shirt — which was worn by board member Laura Guy — symbolized the fears parents shared while passionately arguing against protections. Many said they feel LGBTQ advocacy is seeping into their children’s classrooms. They worry that schools are teaching students about sexuality at too young of an age or that they might allow transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

Rivers Partin, a mother who lives in Overland Park, choked up as she described her 11-year-old daughter coming home with the shirt, worried she would not be accepted if she chose not to wear it.

“I was forced to explain to my child that I would not be allowing her to attend school today,” Partin said. “Disappointingly so, my daughter missed a day of instruction and learning in my efforts to protect her from what I believe would be an unsafe and emotionally unhealthy environment for her to be in today. Not physically unsafe, but emotionally unsafe.”

But members of the LGBTQ community shared their own experiences of feeling unaccepted and unsafe Monday night, including Jacob Moyer, a graduate of Shawnee Mission North High School.

“I am openly gay and I went through many things in those schools that made me not appreciate who I was. I hurt while I was in high school. And it wasn’t because I was confused about who I was,” Moyer said. “The people who made me go through suicidal thoughts in high school, the people who made me want to self harm, those are the people who did not accept me, who did not educate themselves.”

Members of the LGBTQ-rights group Equality Kansas have been advocating for municipalities and school districts to pass protections, especially as such ordinances do not exist at the federal or state level. Many have pointed to the experiences of students who have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a study of students in grades seven through 12 that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.

Moyer and others have said it’s important for school districts to pass protections to create a welcoming, inclusive environment. Many have countered arguments and said the nondiscrimination ordinance does not deal with bathroom policies or school curriculum.

“This isn’t about sex,” Moyer said. “This is about accepting people regardless of who they are, who they love or who they identify as.”

Board member Guy, who is a Northland pastor, said she first saw the rainbow T-shirt on Twitter.

“I just thought it was a great representation of a district that is looking to have deep equity, to welcome all of our students, to make sure they feel safe. That they have the same opportunities. And it just made me happy to see it,” Guy said. “So when they said they had an extra one I was happy to take it and wear it.”

Before last night’s vote, Shawnee Mission’s policy had prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex and disability. Superintendent Michael Fulton said adding LGBTQ protections “reflects current practice.”

“We do not discriminate against staff or students based on any characteristic, so this is consistent with what we already do,” Fulton said.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.