The rumbling began with missing yearbook quotes, but the perfect storm was fueled by mistakes. While there’s plenty of blame to go around, the important question is, “What are the next steps?”
Headlines, TV news stories and social media posts recently told of an injustice when two openly gay Kearney High School students had quotes removed from the yearbook because they were “deemed offensive.”
I know these stories well because, as superintendent of Kearney School District, I’ve read them all. I also know the pain they have caused to our two students in particular and to the district staff and this community.
My goal in this commentary is not to sway your opinion. That opportunity, I fear, has long since passed. Those who know us understand that our compassion for every child is unshakable.
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Those who do not know us likely formed their opinion by what they read, and it wasn’t flattering. As this story unfolded, an inaccurate picture of what happened took shape and spread at rocket speed.
Over the course of 10 days, those who had a hand in shaping it got some things right but also made some critical errors. I’m at the top of the list.
Here’s what happened and what’s going to happen next.
We first learned about the concern of yearbook quotes not being printed as it exploded on social media. As is often the case in these kinds of situations, the posts did not represent all the facts.
However, in a frantic effort to provide an explanation before we even knew the facts, I issued a press release explaining that some quotes can be offensive, but I didn’t explain what that meant or that 11 quotes on a variety topics were left out, not just two.
High school principal David Schwarzenbach immediately reached out to the two students and their parents apologizing for the mistake and explaining to each, “We were supposed to contact you for clarification, which is part of the review process, but didn’t because of a breakdown in communication.”
(Note: A quote about being gay would be offensive if it were written by a non-gay student in an effort to poke fun. Or, if a gay student planned to use a quote to publicly come out as gay, we had better double check with them before publication, because doing so is a life-changing event.)
Not contacting 11 students as part of the senior quote review process turned out to be the smallest mistake made. A more consequential error was communicating with the media using incomplete press releases because it caused greater speculation.
As the saying goes, the buck stops here, and I take full responsibility for these errors. Going forward, I am interested in using this debacle as a springboard for positive change.
We have apologized to the two students (great kids) and to all the students and parents of the high school. We have reached out to the other nine students with an apology. Stickers of the senior quotes are being printed and mailed to all students for placement in their yearbooks.
Additionally, our district’s diversity task force is partnering with the national Human Rights Campaign with the goal of creating systemic change so no child or parent will ever feel marginalized in our district.
In my very first statement to the public, I said we will learn from our mistakes. That part, I intend to get right.
Bill Nicely is superintendent of the Kearney School District.