By Kurt Thigpen
I have debated since late May when my impending resignation was made public whether or not I should share my story after officially stepping down as a Trustee for the Washoe County School Board.
I wondered if sharing my story would give more ammunition to those who have long hated me. Would it jeopardize any chance of me holding public office in the future? Would it be good for my mental health?
After consulting with my therapist, the answer I have reached is: yes, I should share my story. I have done nothing wrong; my conscience is clear, and I want people to know why. This is part of the closure process for me.
My journey over the last seven months has been both the most rewarding and challenging of my life. The best parts of the job were definitely getting to visit schools, meeting with students and teachers, being a voice for those who had none, and getting to vote on things that will change many lives for the better for decades to come.
So, here goes nothing. Apologies for the novel.
When I was officially sworn in as a Trustee on January 4th, 2021, I came into the job with a great deal of optimism and hope for the future. Since I had won my seat outright in the June 2020 primary election with 53% of the vote, I felt invigorated and eager to start. I’d spent all that time in between getting as prepared as one possibly can.
I threw my hat into the ring months before the pandemic had even been detected in the United States in 2020. I had very different goals for my time on the board before then. In fact, Nevada went into lockdown only days after I had signed the official paperwork for my candidacy. If you remember, we all hoped this would be behind us in a few weeks. Here we are a year and half later still dealing with the pandemic.
Things got off to an unimaginable start. Two days after I was sworn in, the Insurrection in Washington, D.C. happened and, to me, has shaken this country to its core at every governmental level — including local school boards. When you add societal and racial unrest and the pandemic into the mix — it makes for a rough and unique ride for anyone holding public office.
The Superintendent wanted to reassure families and students that everything would be OK. She condemned violence in all forms and offered up school district resources to families to help talk to their kids about what was happening. It reminded me of 9/11. I was in 6th grade and watched on live television as the second plane hit the World Trade Center. We didn’t have any support back then, as all Americans were in shock. So, when the Superintendent did what she did, I thought “bravo.”
Who wouldn’t condemn violence, right? Who wouldn’t offer help to those students who might be afraid? I was and still am shocked by those who to this day ask her to apologize for her statement and call it political in nature when she took no sides on the political spectrum and was merely trying to comfort scared children.
Things only escalated after that and never stopped.
I was worried that we (the Board and Superintendent) would be targets for retribution next. I thought, if it could happen on Capitol Hill, what’s to stop it from happening here? I had many conversations with district staff about safety. It reminded me of preparing for active shooter drills. At every school board meeting since, the threat level only got higher, school police presence got higher, and the vitriol, hate, harassment, intimidation and abuse by some members of the public only got worse as time went on.
As it has been widely reported, factions of loud, well-organized groups converged on our meetings and started showing in growing numbers at every school board meeting. All claiming to be “protecting children from indoctrination,” and most of them not even having children currently in the district or even residing in Washoe County.
They started attacking both the Superintendent for her statement, attacking her personally on many fronts, and then attacking our Board President and labeling her as a racist for speaking out against white nationalism. (You cannot make these things up.) When they couldn’t make a solid argument against policies we passed on anti-racism action plans, sex ed curriculum updates (which are required by the state) and the meaning of equity in education (easily found on Google), they joined the national effort of spreading disinformation leading up to meetings, yelling during meetings, harassing staff, namecalling and making fun of public commenters who disagreed with their views, and making our students feel unsafe who were there to speak on topics that were actually on the agenda.
One group even had the gall to shame these students online and in private meetings for speaking up. Shaming children. Disgusting.
I recall one meeting in particular in which the groups became so angry about meeting social distance requirements on school grounds, I’m told that they tried to storm the auditorium we were meeting in.
Staff had to put themselves in harm’s way to stop this from happening.
I had heard there were even a couple of people that were trying to find out how to reach where the Board was seated. This was and still is deeply upsetting to me. It also happened to be the same evening my father was having open-heart surgery thousands of miles away, and I was trying to stay strong through that, while also worrying for my life.
In all honesty, I walked into every board meeting since Jan. 4th fearing for our safety, and not knowing what might happen next. I’m grateful for the school police who continue to work to protect the Board and staff during those meetings.
Eventually, the attacks my colleagues were enduring started coming my way as I started speaking out against what was happening. I had already made myself vulnerable by speaking up for our LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students by drawing upon my own lived experience of being an openly gay teen in the South where I had been on the receiving end and witness to hate in many forms. Many did not like that.
I started receiving endless emails, texts, phone calls, and social media messages with all sorts of hateful things, well beyond what is to be expected from the role of a public servant. I know because I asked other elected friends who have been in the game longer than I was, and they confirmed that this wasn’t normal.
I kept thinking, “Why am I not able to handle this? I’ve been called every name in the book before.” But, when you feel your life might be in danger every day, in and outside of meetings, words take on a more serious meaning. At one point myself and a few other colleagues were doxxed, and that escalated the threat level on a whole other level in my mind.
I kept thinking that these kinds of things only happen to folks higher up in the governmental hierarchy. What on earth is going on here? What happened to agreeing to disagree? I prided myself on being able to work across the aisle with my more conservative colleagues, all of whom I got along with well on a personal level. Why were some members of the public going this far?
Unfortunately, I could only handle the level of stress for so long. It had finally reached a point for me where I started having some serious health problems, both mentally and physically.
It started with suicidal ideations. I didn’t want to exist anymore and felt things would be better if I just disappeared. I was feeling more depressed and anxious than I had since my teenage years. Then it led to chronic panic attacks so bad that on two occasions I thought I was having an actual heart attack.
Things were getting so bad that I found it more and more difficult to carry out my duties. I remember having to miss a board policy meeting because I didn’t have the strength to get out of bed and make myself presentable for a live-stream Zoom meeting.
At one point, I didn’t want to leave my house anymore. I was constantly looking over my shoulder. The anticipation alone of attending another board meeting, being in the same room with folks who likely would be happy if I dropped dead, triggered severe emotional responses for me.
The stress and anxiety reached a point where my body felt like it was breaking down. I began experiencing chronic pain throughout my body and some mobility issues to where I needed the assistance of a cane at times to get around or remain upright. I started having chronic insomnia, which I am still struggling with to this day.
I often “talk the talk” about the importance of looking after one’s mental health, but wasn’t really “walking the walk” throughout all of this. I thought I had things handled, but my coping skills were no match for the events of the last seven months.
The decision to step down came after a long day of cyberbullying I had received, and I felt like dying again. I said to a close friend and my husband that I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. They said they’d support me no matter what, and the next day I made the tough decision to resign and called the Board President.
I’m happy to share that I have been working with a great group of mental health professionals who are working to help me heal from what can only be described as a traumatic experience in my life. They were the ones who helped me feel OK with resigning so I could get better.
One silver lining was working with my psychiatrist to help me dig deeper into these issues and learning that I, in fact, have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This was a big surprise as I had always thought this disorder was more behavioral in nature. I never had trouble in school, but I’ve always known that my mind doesn’t always want to shut off and can cause a lot of anxiety and lead to depression. I’m relieved to know this about myself so I can receive treatment for it, and spread awareness about it.
I’m improving every day, and am focusing on my overall health, finding peace and joy again, and being thankful for every day I have on this Earth.
My hope is that at some point we can all put down our swords and come together as one community regardless of political leanings. We share the same planet, and we only get one chance at life. I’d rather spend it working together in service to others than hating anyone because of our differences, and I hope others get to that point eventually too.
If you are struggling with your mental health, I want you to know that mental health care is health care. Don’t buy into the stigma. If you aren’t feeling OK upstairs, everything else will crumble. It’s important to take care of yourself. I’d like to be an example that even those like myself who are perceived as “successful,” “untouchable,” or that I might “have it all together” that I struggle too. Life is hard.
It is never too late or shameful to ask for help when you need it. It just might be the bravest thing you can do for yourself. At times it might feel like you are alone in the fight in your mind, but there are many out there who love you just as you are. It’s something I have learned from all this.
Thank you to those who believed in me, voted for me, encouraged me, advised me, and were my shoulder to cry on when I needed it. One day I hope to serve you all again if you’ll have me, but for now my focus is on myself, my family, and love. I wish the same for you.
Kurt Thigpen is a former Trustee for the Washoe County School Board for District D, a community advocate, and the CEO of Ace Studios, a multimedia marketing agency based in Reno, NV.