GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Multiple members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community spoke up at the monthly Guilford County Schools Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night, many of them calling on Guilford County Schools to do better on its promises of equity and inclusion.
Tuesday, Oct. 11 marked National Coming Out Day, a day used to spread awareness of the ongoing fight for LGBTQ+ rights and visibility, and Guilford Green Foundation and LGBTQ Center used the convergence of the day and monthly school board meeting to voice concerns about groups like Take Back Our Schools – GCS influencing school administrators in a way that they say harms LGBTQ+ youth.
Speakers shared stories of personal experiences, both as educators and students in the Guilford County School system, and also shared community statistics and concerns about the impact of not embracing the diverse youth of GCS.
Take Back Our Schools – GCS is a Guilford County 501(c)4 organization that opposes “division, hate and the CRT agenda” and teaching students or educators “that they are oppressors or oppressed“. The group vets and endorses school board candidates that align with their values and shares posts on their Facebook page about schools in Guilford County, including news stories and political endorsements.
Recently, the group has shared videos of various fights happening in schools. During the Oct. 11 meeting, members of the school board took time to ask people at the meeting not to circulate these fight videos on social media.
In September, they shared a photograph of a classroom door apparently in Guilford County Schools that had a sign that said “Queer All Year.” In the post, they celebrated that the sign had been removed. Guilford County Schools has not commented on what school this took place at.
Take Back Our Schools
Jennifer Ruppe, the executive director of Guilford Green Foundation, spoke specifically about TBOS, noting that she has spoken with teachers and students who are concerned about speaking out for fear of retaliation like bullying or even being fired.
“Groups like Take Back Our Schools want to erase us. Make no mistake, Take Back Our Schools isn’t a group of local conservative parents, teachers and administrators that simply want to remove a few books from the school library. They are part of an organized national strategy to erode the rights of marginalized communities and scare us back into the closet,” Ruppe said during the school board meeting.
Ruppe accuses the group and groups like it of using false narratives about predatory LGBTQ people and “indoctrination,” and she says people within the school district believe that Take Back Our Schools is influencing how “individual administrators” make decisions.
“Some administrators find it easier to quietly take down an LGBTQ flyer, to ignore students’ request to start a GSA, or to turn a blind eye when a teacher says being gay is a mental illness,” she said. “Many students have shared stories of teachers and administrators who refuse to acknowledge their identities, refuse to use the name they go by and refuse to use the correct pronouns. Students have reported being outed by teachers, which led them to be bullied by their peers. All of these things are in direct contradiction to GCS policies.”
Michael Robinson, who identified himself as an educator who was representing North Carolina for Community and Justice, also touched on groups he says are working to impact LGBTQ+ people in a negative way.
“Banning discussion of LGBTQ people in our school curriculum doesn’t protect our children, it harms them. Spreading misinformation about who trans people are, who queer people are, doesn’t protect our children,” he said. “To the folks who are trying to suppress and vilify LGBTQ+ people, who are using them as pawns to score political points: we see you. What you are doing isn’t making our children safer. It’s allowing prejudice, hate and violence to thrive. And we will not stop pushing back until every person in our community is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings. Period.”
Kait Wellbock, an elementary school counselor in the Guilford County Schools system, spoke about the mental health impact being seen in the LGBTQ+ community.
“Our mission in GCS is to provide a safe, positive and nurturing learning environment so students can achieve their full academic, social and personal potential,” she said. “LGBTQ+ students are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-LGBTQ students. As a counselor, I have assessed students as young as five for suicidal ideation. It is a real fear we see in our schools and no one is exempt.”
Most of them spoke about their own personal experiences, either as students, allies or teachers. Nathan Crabtree, who identified himself as a retired music teacher, said that being out to his students and their parents was important to him.
“The lived experiences of students and teachers are important. They shape who we are and help our students see us as real people. No one goes into education with the intention of being only a straight teacher or a gay teacher or a cis teacher or a trans teacher or a left-handed teacher or a right-handed teacher,” Crabtree said. “We bring our whole selves to the profession and we hope to teach all children the value of living in truth.”
Robinson added to the conversation with discussions of the importance of affirming spaces for marginalized youth, discussing young people he’d met through his work as an educator.
“I think of students like Shane. Shane came out as a trans man during his sophomore year at the high school where I taught. Shane spent years battling anxiety and depression. Having come out, he finally felt comfortable in his own skin. He became more sociable, his grades improved. He now has a successful career.
“I think of Lily, who just started college, she told me, ‘Before coming out as trans, I wanted to kill myself. I was afraid to be who I truly am. I can only imagine what I’m capable of now that I can finally be myself.’ If they hadn’t had those affirming spaces at school, the world could have lost those smart, vibrant, compassionate people. And I could have lost two friends to preventable deaths.”
A Grimsley junior named Louise praised her teachers and friends at Grimsley for their acceptance of her when she came out as transgender last year.
“I know my experience is unique, because I have had an invaluable amount of support from my teachers, and I know not every student is able to get the kind of support that I have,” she said. “I sent an email to all of the teachers I had, explaining, ‘I know this is difficult but I have to make this decision. Please use this name. Use these pronouns. Respect me in class.’ And I got respect immediately from all of my teachers, and I didn’t think that could happen, but Grimsley has created an environment where it’s OK to be out and queer. At least in my circles. And since I know that’s not the case everywhere in GCS, I just want to remind all of you how important that is.”
What can the school district do?
Guilford County Schools itself was the topic of some discussion, with many echoing the sentiment that the school district needs to do more for its LGBTQ+ students and faculty.
“I urge you to stay true to your own policy, which states, and I quote, ‘The Guilford County Board of Education acknowledges the dignity and worth of all students and employees and strives to make an environment that is free from discrimination, harassment and bullying in all of its educational programs and employment activities. This includes but is not limited to discrimination, harassment and bullying based on sex, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.’ End quote,” Crabtree said.
Wellbock said, “We as a school district claim to provide a safe, positive and nurturing learning environment for all, so we MUST provide a safe, positive, nurturing learning environment for all. Students and staff who are seen as accepted and celebrated by their school community are more likely to thrive and contribute to that community, with increased mental and emotional wellness.”
Ruppe said, “We are simply here to ask you that the school board hold GCS accountable for upholding the nondiscrimination policies that are already in place.”
A junior at Grimsley named Cece, who is the co-president of the Sexuality and Gender Acceptance club said inappropriate language goes unchallenged by school staff, citing an incident where she heard a student call another student the “F-slur” in the hallways.
“How do you think that makes me feel, makes my queer friends and classmates feel to hear a derogatory term used so casually with no repercussion? In my 12 years with GCS, I’ve had several teachers who were allies, but only one who didn’t tolerate the use of that word in their classroom,” she said.
“We need your help. This is me asking you to call out the unacceptable behavior of students, parents and staff who are being unjust to a community of kids who are doing no harm and are just trying to exist in peace like everyone else.”
You can watch the full Guilford County Schools Board of Education meeting, and past meetings, here.