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From Advocacy to Policy: How LGBTQ advocates and their allies helped shape policy in USD 259

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Liz Hamor, GLSEN Kansas Chapter Director

By Gabriel Costilla

As a union of teachers, we are tasked with many things, such as improving teacher salaries, advocating for teacher rights, and improving our work environment. Often times we are on the defense trying to keep our heads above water when faced with budget shortfalls and shifting pedagogical mandates, but every so often we are afforded the opportunity to move the needle forward. We have been able to make progress with teacher retention using the peer consultant program; we were instrumental in creating the Catastrophic Emergency Benefits Plan; and now we are improving the lives of our LGBTQ students by advocating for an LGBTQ nondiscrimination policy. 

Considering the changing nature of unions across the U.S., especially in regards to teacher unions fighting for the common good, we think there might be some lessons in how this process unfolded in our district. While we recognize that not all of our members agree with our stance on this issue, we think there is still valuable insight in looking at how this policy was implemented by advocates because we believe that teachers should be at the table when it comes to shaping policy in our district. 

Surprise Nondiscrimination Statement

The 5-2 decision on December 10, 2019 to add a statement of LGBTQ nondiscrimination came as a surprise to many proponents of the change, but not Liz Hamor, chapter director for GLSEN Kansas, who had been working behind the scenes on this issue for a year and a half, “I knew it was going to be on the agenda, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to pass.”

It did pass, but not without disagreement. Especially from board member Mike Rhodee who resigned at that meeting and then later rescinded his resignation. His strong disagreement with the policy was also no surprise for Liz who had been working behind the scenes to educate and inform board members about LGBTQ issues as much as she could. She knew that Mike Rhodee was adamantly opposed to the policy change, but she also believed and continues to believe that it is important for our LGBTQ students to see adults advocating for them with integrity.

While many may view the nondiscrimination policy as a positive step forward for our district becoming more inclusive, Liz warns that the issue isn’t truly settled, “In Kansas, we always make two steps forward for LGBTQ rights, and one step back after the inevitable backlash.”

Liz is quick to point out that Board President Sherril Logan insisted that this was a board statement and not a policy. In order for this to be policy, the board would need to do a first and second reading of the policy and vote each time. When pressed on what the difference between a statement and a policy was, Liz couldn’t say for sure, but felt that it was a way to appease the two outliers on the board, Mike Rhodee and Ron Rosales. 

From our understanding in talking with the district, they are in the process of reviewing and updating current policy to include the LGBTQ. And according to Liz, we are already behind several other districts, such as Lawrence, Topeka, Kansas City, Manhattan, and DeSoto, in creating our inclusive nondiscrimination policy.

A Long Behind the Scenes Road

For many, this attempt to change the nondiscrimination policy was brought to the forefront of everyone’s attention with the tragic suicide of a former transgender student. It was a heart wrenching time for educators across the district, and an eye opener for many of us that we needed to do a better job protecting some of our most vulnerable students.

But for others, this wasn’t an isolated tragedy. It was one of a series of struggles and set-backs that advocates had been facing for years in their attempt to have USD259 be more inclusive.

Tom Witt, Executive Director of Equality Kansas, has been involved with this struggle for the past fifteen years. 

While he has consistently tried to push for legislative change at the state level, he says that most of their success has happened when they work with local districts in a reserved, but focused way. While he has seen his share of backlash over the years, he credits the inclusion of Gay Straight Alliance Clubs at schools with having the largest impact in shifting attidudes. 

When he first started Equality Kansas in Wichita about fifteen years ago, there was only one GSA club in Wichita at Southeast High School ran by former UTW President Steve Wentz. Since then, chapters have been formed in each high school and at least five middle schools.

According to Tom, once a school district has a GSA club, it is harder for school districts to question if they even have LGBTQ students whose needs have not been met. Then, once a school district recognizes that they do have LGBTQ students, advocates like Tom attempt to communicate with the district that there needs to be policy enforcement in order to protect these students.

While the ultimate goal is to have an inclusive nondiscrimination policy, advocates are often forced to take what they can get

Here in Wichita in early 2008, advocates were making head way with GSA clubs, but had not yet influenced policy. That changed when they were able to find an ally on the Board of Education, current Lt. Governor Lynn Rogers, to champion their cause at BOE meetings. While they were not ultimately able to get an inclusive nondiscrimination policy, they did manage to include sexual orientation in the anti-bullying policy.

Since then, according to Tom and Liz, the district has conducted studies on the need for a more inclusive nondiscrimination policy to protect LGBTQ students, and while the findings of those studies apparently showed a strong need for the inclusive nondiscrimination policy, it was determined unfeasible because of the make up of who was on the Board of Education.

Despite this, advocates continued to work behind the scenes on trying to change policy. This past fall was a culmination of all of their hardwork and determination, and it showed that policy change can happen given enough time and effort.

Liz Hamor, GLSEN Kansas Chapter Director

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

When asked about what helped to finally move this process out of the backroom and into the public board meeting, Liz Hamor credits a few things.

  1. Shifting attitudes
  2. Community Advocacy
  3. Electing Receptive Board Members
  4. Building Coalitions

Liz readily admits that attitudes toward LGBTQ rights have had a long road in Kansas, and points to the book There’s No Place Like Home by C.J. Lanovy as evidence of the trials and tribulations that advocates have endured over the years, but now things are different. For many, especially younger people, LGBTQ rights are no longer seen as taboo. In fact, Liz believes that the problem she’s facing now is that many LGBTQ allies don’t think they need to get involved because it is seen as a non-issue. 

That’s why Liz has worked tirelessly to ensure that USD 259 board members had an opportunity to hear from people in the community that were being affected by this policy. 

Board members were invited to sit down with LGBTQ students and their parents, they were sent letters, and of course they heard passionate testimony from LGBTQ students, parents, and teachers at board meetings.

Many of those teachers that stood up to testify were UTW members such as Teralyn Cohn (Southeast), Kendall Hawkins (Meade), Ron Hobert (Black), and Gabe Padilla (West).

Another aspect that Liz credits for the progress that has been made is having receptive board members. She mentioned how critical it was to have a strong ally like board member Ben Blankley sitting in on meetings and the importance of board members like Stan Reeser that were willing to listen and be educated on the issues. She recognizes that it’s not easy for elected officials to make a strong stance on issues, and she hopes that with continued education and community advocacy, it will be easier for elected officials to be vocal advocates on these and other issues.

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