LGBTQ diversity training for teachers sparks controversy at Trailside Elementary as group claims it teaches sex education
Attorneys for an anonymous group claiming to represent parents of schoolchildren have sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Park City School District in an attempt to stop a program it says is designed to politically indoctrinate children and change the culture at Trailside Elementary School.
District officials counter that the program, called Welcoming Schools, stops bullying and call it a professional development tool that helps create a safe and welcoming environment for all students. Parents who support the program say the issue has caused a rift in the Trailside community.
The disagreement centers around an August professional development session in which a Utah State Board of Education trainer hosted a three-hour module called “Embracing Family Diversity” for the Trailside staff. That trainer herself was trained by Welcoming Schools, which identifies itself as a professional development program providing training to elementary school educators focusing on embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ- and gender-inclusive schools and preventing bias-based bullying.
In a September message on the school’s website, Trailside Principal Carolyn Synan wrote that the school planned to have two training modules per year and that parents would be brought in to offer input once the program reached a later stage of implementation. So far, Trailside teachers have received only the August training, according to Superintendent Jill Gildea. There was another session planned for March.
Opponents of the program calling themselves Stop Welcoming Schools have retained Sandy law firm Solon Law, PLLC, which crafted the cease-and-desist letter.
Lead counsel Trevor Casperson explained his clients’ concern is the program, in their view, disenfranchises parents by taking the decision out of their hands about when and how to educate their kids about human sexuality, including LGBTQ issues.
He contends the program amounts to sex education and that there is no effective way for parents to prevent their children from being exposed to it if they wish.
“Welcoming Schools is a program designed to change the way students and teachers think, not just provide a single class,” Casperson said. “(Kids) can’t opt out from (interacting with) teachers.”
The letter demands the school cease all Welcoming Schools programming and remove “all propaganda, advertisements, marketing collateral, visual aids and literature.”
Gildea, the superintendent, wrote in an email to The Park Record that the district is reviewing the program to try to assuage the concerns that have been brought forward.
“However, we will not step back from the importance of defining safe and inclusive schools as a key aspect of school success or from our district’s efforts to achieve its vision and mission,” she wrote.
She added that the program was started in response to new anti-bullying legislation.
A Park City School District spokesperson wrote in an email that the removal of two Welcoming Schools-branded images from Trailside — a poster and a decal — was under legal review, as was any response to the cease-and-desist letter.
In an August email welcoming parents to the new school year, Synan, the Trailside principal, wrote that she was excited to announce the professional development program, which she indicated would take place over the next few years. Synan’s message also included a link to Welcoming Schools’ website.
In September, Stop Welcoming Schools sent a 2,300-word email to members of the Trailside community calling for parents to resist what it referred to as “an LGBTQ indoctrination program and sex education program” for kids as young as 4.
The email said Welcoming Schools’ cheerful name belied an insidious mission and further accused Synan of peddling falsehoods and misrepresenting the program.
The tactics of Stop Welcoming Schools have themselves been divisive. Trailside parents Lara Valdes-Postula and Melanie Smith, who support the Welcoming Schools program, said the anonymity of Stop Welcoming Schools has prevented a community dialogue that could potentially defuse tensions. Personal attacks against the school’s principal in widely disseminated emails have further polarized the community, the parents said.
“Why hide behind an anonymous name?” Valdes-Postula said.
The emails Stop Welcoming Schools have sent out are blind carbon-copied, which prevents recipients from replying to each other.
Andrew Caplan, president of the Park City Board of Education, said the elected officials would welcome a community discussion. He’s frustrated the opponents of the program, in his view, have not allowed that to happen.
“Bullying the school district about teaching anti-bullying is pretty ironic,” Caplan said. “Oftentimes people who are frightened by other people’s interests act out anonymously. It’s no different than Klansmen wearing hoods, frankly.”
Gildea wrote that the elementary school put considerable thought into selecting the Welcoming Schools training for its staff. Gildea said such training is required by Utah state statute and Utah State Board of Education administrative rules to address bullying, specifically bullying targeting gender identity and sexual identity.
Stop Welcoming Schools claims elementary schools are exempt from this requirement.
Gildea wrote that Trailside staff had witnessed students using negative and derogatory words toward one another and requested help teaching students about the negative effects of bullying and name-calling.
“A positive school culture is essential in welcoming all students and families to our schools,” Gildea wrote.
Mark Peterson, a Utah State Board of Education spokesperson, said Welcoming Schools is one of dozens of organizations that offer this sort of training. He said it’s been nationally recommended and used in other school districts in Utah and around the country.
Holly Bell, the State Board of Education employee who performed the training, received a certification in the Welcoming Schools program, Peterson said, and travels to schools to provide free trainings.
“(Local education agencies) are required to provide that training,” Peterson said. “They can go out and hire someone, but this is a way of doing it for no cost.”
In addition to the Sandy law firm Stop Welcoming Schools retained, the California-based Pacific Justice Institute has been offering legal support, Casperson said. The Pacific Justice Institute describes itself as a nonprofit legal defense organization specializing in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights and other civil liberties, according to its website.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group, has designated the Pacific Justice Institute an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Stop Welcoming Schools wrote in the first email it sent to parents that they are a “growing group of Park City parents.”
“None of us are anti-LGBTQ,” the email states. “We are not racists. We are not bigots. We’re ‘live and let live’ kinds of people who believe in kindness to others above all else.”
According to Welcoming Schools’ website, the organization was born out of the desire to examine how LGBTQ topics affect elementary school students and to help elementary schools support children with LGBTQ parents.
Its website claims 95,000 educators in 37 states have participated in the Welcoming Schools professional development program, and that schools using the approach experience a 50 percent reduction in bullying within two years of full implementation.
Soon after its founding, Welcoming Schools joined the Human Rights Campaign, which has owned it since 2006. The Human Rights Campaign bills itself as a civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ equality.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the length of the “Embracing Family Diversity” training. It lasted three hours.
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