After emotional testimony, Wichita school board edges toward more LGBTQ inclusion

After hearing emotional testimony from LGBTQ students and staff, the president of the Wichita school board ordered the first steps toward a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy across the district.

Board President Sheril Logan directed Superintendent Alicia Thompson to create a report “on policies, on guidelines that can help us make sure we’re the same from building to building, and on professional development . . . to make sure every student in our district can feel safe.”

The rights of gay, transgender and gender-fluid people in the schools was not an agenda item for Monday’s board meeting, but more than 100 people crowded into the meeting room to hear about a dozen advocates share their experiences in the district.

“I came out as a transgender male in eighth grade,” at a school that was accepting of that, Alec Strouse said.

But that changed freshman year of high school when he had to take gym class.

Despite a request to use an unoccupied locker or rest room to dress for exercise, “I was still forced to use the women’s locker room and because of that I did fail my gym class,” Strouse said. “I was severely bullied in there and I had to retake it in the summer so I wouldn’t have any hindrance in my ability to graduate.”

Discrimination led to a decline in his mental health and grades, Strouse said.

“I had teachers and substitute teachers flat out refuse to use my pronouns and name,” he said. “I didn’t think I was asking too much, just a couple of words.”

Sarah Lopez went to the podium with her gay daughter Avery and talked about mistreatment by school staff.

“At her previous school, she was not able to receive an education,” Lopez said. “Avery was told by her teacher and principal that she was sick, she needed to be fixed and would go to hell if she didn’t get the help she needed.”

Three speakers urged the board to leave policy the way it is.

“I do not hate anyone who believes they are part of the LGBTQ gender,” said Jeanne Garrelts. “As they quote frequently, Jesus loves them, and he does and this is true.

“But he does have standards of right and wrong with consequences for both choices. Jesus knows what will bless and bring fulfillment and life to men and women, and what won’t.”

Wendy Fjorden spoke about “mental and emotional trauma” her transgender child encountered in the schools, from books with transgender characters being banned from libraries to failure of educators to understand the challenges transgender students face.

“I want no other transgendered student to feel that their only option is suicide,” she said. “It seems the chances for a student taking their own life becomes especially higher in any school district that has sent multiple messages that being a transgender person is not OK.”

She was one of several speakers who referenced a student who recently died by suicide.

Most of the speakers support a proposed expansion of the school district’s nondiscrimination policy to include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and immigration status.

Current policy pledges that the district will not discriminate “on the basis of race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, veteran status, or any other legally protected classification.”

School board member Ben Blankley has proposed making changes because students and staff are being treated inconsistently by different schools in the use of preferred names and gender-indicating pronouns.

For example, “in some middle schools, some kids might have preferred pronouns they want to use and their teachers are cool and everyone from the building administration on down is fine with that,” he said. “Across town, that same kid might have an entirely different experience and have more of a hostile environment.”

Blankley said it’s also important to establish policy so the district’s computer systems can be brought up to standards.

At present, the district IT system has no capacity to display preferred names to allow school colleagues to properly address people who are transitioning or have transitioned.

Blankley acknowledged that the topic is a controversial one and that the outcome could be affected by the upcoming school board elections, with a primary in August and a general election in November.

Three seats are up for election and only one board member, Ernestine Krehbiel, is running unopposed.

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.