Community meeting reveals support for anti-bullying programs, but parents divided about Welcoming Schools
Trailside Elementary School has been an unlikely lightning rod for controversy in recent weeks, and on Tuesday about 75 community members gathered at a local coffee shop to try to clear the air.
The meeting was organized by a group of parents concerned about what they called misinformation being spread through anonymous mass emails about a professional development training for teachers called Welcoming Schools. The program bills itself as a way to teach educators how to embrace family diversity, create LGBTQ- and gender-inclusive schools and prevent bias-based bullying.
Contentiousness that has been present on social media, in the anonymous emails and elsewhere in the debate was largely absent among the packed house at Hugo Coffee Shop.
Neither Park City School District Superintendent Jill Gildea nor Trailside Elementary Principal Carolyn Synan spoke at the meeting, and the district has cited an ongoing legal situation in its preference not to comment further on the Welcoming Schools debate. Attorneys associated with a group that has been sending the mass emails, called “Stop Welcoming Schools,” sent the district a cease-and-desist letter regarding the program in mid-October. The emails claim the program amounts to sex education and have referred to Welcoming Schools as LGBTQ indoctrination, accusations the district has refuted. The Stop Welcoming Schools opposition has sparked a contentious debate among Trailside parents about the program and in the broader community about schools’ role in promoting inclusivity.
The crowd appeared to overwhelmingly support the Welcoming Schools program, though some questioned the need to focus on LGBTQ issues and others advocated switching to a less controversial program. The support for anti-bullying programming in general, however, appeared unanimous.
As the crowd of about 75 filed into the 90-minute session, moderator Mary Christa Smith, who also works as Summit County’s Communities That Care coordinator, stated her intention to create a safe space for people to listen and learn from each other and extolled the crowd to maintain a civil atmosphere.
After brief opening remarks from the event’s organizers, Park City Board of Education President Andrew Caplan told the crowd the board supported both Superintendent Gildea and Principal Synan. Synan, in particular, had come under personal attack in the anonymous emails.
He said the district wants to ensure children are accepted — both for “things that are their choice and things that are no choice at all.”
“(Our goal is) to make schools a safe and welcoming place for everyone. That includes every race, every creed, every color, everything,” Caplan said. “We’re an accepting community, that’s who we are. That’s not going to change anytime soon.”
The organizers of the gathering, including parents of kids at Trailside and members of its parent-teacher organization, attempted to dispel what they characterized as misinformation included in the emails, like the district using its money to pay for the Welcoming Schools training, which was in fact paid for by the state.
A question-and-answer session followed, with most commenters supporting the program and its focus on inclusion.
The teacher training module that took place on one afternoon in August was entitled “Embracing Family Diversity” and was delivered at the behest of the school district after teachers at Trailside asked for more support to answer difficult questions from students, according to a district spokesperson. The training was conducted by an official with the Utah State Board of Education.
A speaker who identified herself as Lucie Kayser-Bril, a french teacher at Jeremy Ranch Elementary School, explained the importance of inclusion for students.
“If their story is never in the books I read, or a song, a video … I have to create a space where they’re like, ‘Ah, it’s my story they’re saying,’” Kayser-Bril said.
Another speaker said he thought name-calling and discord in the debate had gotten ridiculous.
He said everyone pretty much agreed that anti-bullying programs were a good thing.
“Why don’t we get one that everyone can agree to?” he asked.
He then mentioned his children had been bullied on social media and suggested the district do an analysis about the best place to focus the anti-bullying curriculum that would help the most kids.
Christa Smith indicated her office was in the process of synthesizing a 190-page biennial report on just that issue.
Another community member, Allison Cook, said she supported inclusion efforts but that they aren’t being applied across the board.
She said her son — who has come out as gay and was sickened when a student sprayed bear spray at Park City High School in an attempt to disrupt a conservative student group’s meeting in April — feels supported by the community for his sexual identity but is at times harassed for his conservative views.
“I feel like there are favored minority groups that are protected and others that are not,” Cook said. “Nobody in this discussion said anything about protecting freedom of belief or differing opinions.”
It was a point echoed later by her fiance, Jimmy May, who said conservatives are the new oppressed class, describing how he feels he has to whisper his political views when in public.
May was interrupted by someone in the crowd after he had been speaking for a few minutes with a shout of “What’s your question?”
Jennifer Brinton, a Trailside mother with three kids in the Park City School District, asked for clarification about Welcoming Schools: whether it would be extended into a full-fledged curriculum taught to kids, as she had been told, and if parents in that case would have a say in which materials would be used in classrooms.
Organizers were unable to provide those answers.
In response to comments that the training focused too much on LGBTQ issues, PTO member Stephanie O’Connor said it’s a group that needs special protection, especially given the extremely high suicide rate of LGBTQ youth.
“This isn’t something to brush under the rug, this isn’t something that will go away if you ignore it,” she said.
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