Park City School District is going ahead with a planned March anti-bullying teacher training after earlier session proved controversial
The Park City School District is going ahead with the second of two planned anti-bullying teacher training sessions next week, a decision the district had been reviewing after the first training sparked controversy in the Trailside Elementary and broader school communities.
The August training, entitled “Embracing Family Diversity,” used materials from a state-sanctioned program called Welcoming Schools and was delivered at the request of teachers who said they were seeing increased incidents of bullying at Trailside Elementary School.
The second training, with a focus on bias-based bullying, is now scheduled for March 16, according to Holly Bell, the Utah State Board of Education equity and advocacy specialist who delivered the first training.
In the weeks after the August training, emails sent to parents from an anonymous group opposed to Welcoming Schools sparked a community debate about the program that included a moderated community meeting that attempted to find community consensus around bullying training. Most at that October meeting seemed to accept the need for increased bullying-prevention efforts but asked the district to find a less controversial program.
Opponents of Welcoming Schools labeled it an LGBTQ indoctrination and sex education program and retained a lawyer who sent a cease-and-desist letter to the district.
District and State Board of Education officials called the trainings an anti-bullying campaign that helps teachers handle difficult situations.
Welcoming Schools is owned by the Human Rights Campaign, which bills itself as America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve LGBTQ equality.
The State Board of Education offers the training at no cost to school districts and touts the trainings as a way for local education agencies to comply with state anti-bullying requirements.
Bell has said Welcoming Schools is a particularly good training module that has evidence-based results.
“It’s known to decrease reported bullying behaviors and increase scores in reading and math,” she said in November.
According to materials provided by Bell, the first training had worksheets that included questions like, “How can two women have children? Don’t you need a dad?” The sample suggested response is, “Children come into families in many different ways. Every family is different.”
Bell said these are the types of conversations teachers sometimes ask for help navigating.
Bell provided to The Park Record the material she intends to use for the March training, which includes stark statistics about youth suicide broken down by gender and sexual identity and bias-based bullying worksheets labeled with the Welcoming Schools logo.
The Welcoming Schools material includes, among other things, definitions of bullying and cyberbullying; strategies for dealing with bullying, including what to do when a teacher encounters a bullying situation in real time; and a breakdown of students who are involved in bullying, from the student being bullied to disengaged onlookers to defenders.
Last fall, when responding to the cease-and-desist letter, the district’s legal counsel said in a letter that the district was not committed to the Welcoming Schools program, but that it may continue to use Welcoming Schools material as long as the state offers it at minimum expense. And it said it was prepared to defend itself if sued.
“The District is not wedded to the use of any particular ‘branded’ training materials,” the letter states. “Rather, its interest is in providing low-cost, high quality training regarding the elimination of bullying behaviors and the creation of welcoming school climates… .”
Melinda Colton, a district spokesperson, said the professional development training for teachers at Trailside Elementary School was to go on as planned.
“The District will proceed with state-provided training on Anti-Bullying and Anti-Bias in March; however, I do not believe the training is ‘branded’ with a specific name,” she wrote in an email last month.
The district declined to comment further and did not provide information on whether it’s received any response from the opposition group’s lawyers or any additional threats of legal action.
The State Board of Education is refining its anti-bullying rules, and the Legislature received testimony during that process from the California-based Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal organization that specializes in the defense of religious freedom, according to its website.
Its chief counsel, Kevin Snider, co-signed the October cease-and-desist letter sent to the Park City School District demanding it stop the usage of Welcoming Schools.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights group, has designated the Pacific Justice Institute an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Bell said the state’s contract with Welcoming Schools expires in June, and she doubts it will be renewed.
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It was an important decision since the rest of the talks will be heavily influenced by the processing option selected by the Planning Commission on Wednesday.