By Verónica Frenkel
Last week, the WCSD School Board made a decision to approve the Sexuality, Health and Responsibility Education (SHARE) curriculum, but only after removing Lesson 1, the lesson that provides definitions and factual information about sexual orientation and gender identity. With very little deliberation or explanation of their action, the School Board decided to remove the existence of LGBTQ+ students from this important curriculum because some people “don’t agree with it,” and they asked the SHARE Committee to try to be more “balanced” and “inclusive of opposing beliefs” by revising Lesson 1.
The Board’s action was, quite simply, wrong. Their action demonstrates that they are holding the beliefs of one religious perspective in higher regard than human rights and that they think that opinion is more important than evidence-based practice. It was slap in the face to an already-marginalized and vulnerable student population, as well as to the LGBTQ+ staff who work in the School District.
I understand that the Board was overwhelmed by a well-orchestrated effort of a small minority of our community (and outside our community) that spoke against the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students in the curriculum and promoted hate and discrimination. And while these voices may have been loud, the School Board should not have succumbed to them and should, instead, have followed their own policies and guiding principles of equity and diversity and should have approved the entire curriculum as presented. They should have recognized the needs of this very vulnerable group of students and stood up for them. Unfortunately, aside from Trustee Malena Raymond, the School Board betrayed these students.
There are some who stress how the decision was “only” to send Lesson 1 back to the SHARE Committee and not an outright rejection of the lesson. However, this action delays implementation of an updated SHARE curriculum that is many years overdue.
In fact, during one of my final School Board meetings in October 2018, when the Board was informed that once again that our approval would be delayed, I expressed publicly my frustration with the endless delays.
And, in fact, at that meeting, the Board gave clear direction that an LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum needed to be ready to be launched by the 2019/20 school year. The Board’s recent decision delays these critical updates yet again. Consequently, our LGBTQ+ students will continue to feel excluded, unrepresented, and invisible in this curriculum for at least another year.
Moreover, the School Board’s action flies in the face of numerous Federal and State laws. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits public schools from promoting or endorsing religion or attempting to impose particular religious beliefs on students. Multiple legal decisions have made it clear that schools should be careful to avoid curriculum choices that insert religious beliefs, that may single out or stigmatize LGBTQ+ students, and foster a disapproving attitude towards them. School Board members are clearly required to follow the law regardless of their personal beliefs or pressure from religious constituent groups.
The Trustees’ request to remove Lesson 1 and to revise it to include “opposing views” is precisely an attempt to insert the belief of a single religious perspective (and, to be clear, a fundamentalist segment of that religion) into a research- and evidence-based curriculum for students in our school district. Religious fundamentalist opinions of a vocal segment of our community do not equal the factual, scientific and objective information contained in that lesson, and they have no place even being acknowledged in an academic curriculum.
In addition, the Board’s action contradicts the School District’s very own policies related to equity, diversity, and non-discrimination, policies which my former Board colleagues and I are proud to have instituted during the past few years. These policies include:
- The Equity and Diversity policy which states that, “Students will see themselves represented in the curriculum, programs, culture, and staff of the school.”
- The SHARE program policy, which states that “the SHARE program has been developed to … provide strategies to support all students, regardless of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
- A nationally-recognized Administrative Regulation on Gender Identity and Gender Non-Conformity developed “to foster the safe and healthy development of the transgender or gender non-conforming student while maximizing the student’s social integration into the school setting and minimizing stigmatization of the student.”
With the exception of Trustee Raymond, at last week’s meeting, Board members failed to demonstrate their commitment to the principles and expectations outlined in these policies.
Consideration of District policies brings me to another important point. Lesson 1 of the draft SHARE curriculum simply provides definitions and information about “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” as derived from reputable scientific, medical, and evidence-based research. Multiple School District policies and regulations reference these terms.
So, are Board members saying that they can reference sexual orientation and gender identity in their own policies, but that they are “too uncomfortable” providing clear and objective definitions of those very concepts in a sexuality curriculum for our students? That makes no sense whatsoever.
Whether or not LGBTQ+ young people exist is not up for debate. They do exist, and they are an important part of the student community. And, as research has shown, the refusal to acknowledge their existence negatively affects their health, mental health and educational success. In the face of such marginalization, these students experience higher rates of emotional distress, self-harm, suicide, and substance abuse. By perpetuating bigotry and exclusion, the School Board has reinforced attitudes that harm children.
I was stunned at the Board’s insensitivity to this reality during their discussion. They made no reference whatsoever to concern for the students or the staff who were most certainly negatively affected by the tone and tenor of the ugly rhetoric being spewed for more than three hours at their meeting. Moreover, the board actually contributed to the painful bigotry by repeatedly expressing their concerns of “being uncomfortable.” Board members took great pains to honor those with “opposing beliefs,” but said nothing to recognize and honor the voices of the very students who also spoke to them during public comment, and whom they are there to serve. In fact, I don’t think the word “student” was used once during the Board’s discussion. Shame on them.
When these School Board members were elected, they took on the responsibility of representing and considering the well-being of all children, not just the children who make them “comfortable.” If they can’t do that, if they cannot follow their own policies, care for all children, and allow all students to see themselves in this curriculum, then they should move on.
If the School Board ultimately decides to remove Lesson 1 or to add language to “be inclusive of” a single religious perspective, they will be violating the Constitution, inserting bigotry and discrimination into the curriculum, and reinforcing homophobic and transphobic messages that marginalize and endanger the well-being of our young people. And they will undo years of nationally-recognized hard work that has been done to promote equity and diversity at the School District.
I do not believe that the voices of bigotry and hate that we heard at last week’s School Board meeting represent the views of our community. And I urge my fellow citizens to remind our School Board of that and to let your loving, inclusive voices be heard. Email your Trustees at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask them to reconsider this decision before the end of July, so that an inclusive curriculum is ready for implementation during the 2019/20 school year. The Board still has time to correct this injustice. The community needs to demand that they do so.
And to the LGBTQ+ young people of our community, I apologize on behalf of the adults who have seriously let you down. It is time for us to stand up for you. You have a right to be here. We see you. We embrace you as members of our community. Your stories matter. Your experiences matter. Your well-being and lives matter. And don’t let anyone, even if they are elected officials, tell you otherwise.
Verónica Frenkel served on the WCSD Board of Trustees from 2015-2018. She is a senior human resources professional and owns a coaching and consulting business that supports leadership development, communication, and teamwork in organizations. A Chilean-American who has lived in northern Nevada for 22 years, Verónica has dedicated her entire life to promoting social justice, interpersonal collaboration, healthy communities, and quality education.
Submitted opinions do not represent the views of ThisisReno. Have something to say? Submit an opinion article here.