Dozens of students, parents and teachers turned out last week as the school board hosted an impassioned debate about recent "Acceptance Week" lessons focused on gender and sexual identity at San Ramon's Windemere Ranch Middle School and the objections some community members had to the way those activities were carried out.
Though the San Ramon Valley board members did not take a formal vote, each expressed support for the student-led program during a standing-room-only informational presentation and public discussion that lasted nearly two and a half hours April 19 in Danville.
"If we made a difference to just one student at WRMS so that they could feel safe with who they are, instead of scared and alone, then we succeeded in what we wanted to accomplish," said Lauren Ottley, an eighth-grader in Windemere Ranch's leadership class, which spearheaded the Acceptance Week from April 11-15.
A majority of the nearly three-dozen speakers to the board last week -- by a ratio of about 5:1 -- strongly supported the Acceptance Week activities focused on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
The handful of dissenters said they opposed only the materials of the lessons, not the subject of LGBT tolerance, and they were dismayed by ridicule faced by some students who chose to opt out of the voluntary activities.
"The lesson we wanted to teach was: We are all different," said Madeline Damian, another Windemere Ranch leadership student who spoke to the school board.
"We look different, we sound different, we dress different, we believe different things, we have different ideas and opinions, we have different faiths, we like different people. And all of that is OK because that's what makes a community -- different people sharing different ideas and accepting and respecting everyone," she added.
The leadership class developed lessons and activities that occurred throughout the week on tolerance for all students at the campus in the Dougherty Valley, with a focus on acceptance for the school's LGBT community and awareness of the harm of anti-LGBT language, Ottley said.
When principal Dave Bolin announced plans to hold the Acceptance Week lessons during the 27-minute academic prep period at the end of the school days, some parents objected and an online petition developed to oppose the optional week-long activities as proposed.
The week went on as planned, and just over 200 students opted out of the sessions.
Reflecting on how the week played out, the school board heard emotional commentary from parents, students and community members on both sides of the debate in front of more than 100 people packed into the meeting room or peering through the doorway from the lobby last week.
The Acceptance Week supporters, many of whom wore rainbow lapel ribbons, included a range of students, teachers, parents and other community members, including local high school students who identify as gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, pansexual and genderfluid.
"I spent most of my eighth-grade year crying. I spent most of my eighth-grade year in the bathroom feeling like I was wrong, like who I loved was wrong," said Rachel Laventure, co-president of the Dougherty Valley High gay-straight alliance (GSA) and a former Windemere Ranch student.
"Stuck with self-hatred, I would look myself in the mirror and ask myself, 'Why am I like this? Why was I made wrong?'" she told the board. "I don't want any kid to feel that way. ... I want them to be proud of who they are, to know that who they are isn't wrong, to have been taught about who they are."
"There have been too many students this year that I have had to ask about the fresh scabs on their wrists and legs, and we need to do something," said Jennie Drummond, a Monte Vista High teacher and former San Ramon Valley High student.
"Lessons like those given at Windemere Ranch are inconvenient for very few, but very literally life-saving to so, so many," added Drummond, who is openly bisexual.
Supporters extolled the importance of the LGBT lessons, for helping those students feel recognized, appreciated and validated, for aiming to normalize gender and sexual identity in schools and for encouraging education of all students about LGBT content related to history, health and other subjects.
Those who spoke out against the Acceptance Week program said they supported LGBT tolerance lessons but most criticized the school for presenting curriculum created by students, not by teachers.
Parent Sharlee Stemmons said she objected to "sexually stimulating images" and other content included in YouTube videos featured in the lessons that she thought served no real educational purpose. She cited examples such as a naked man lying in bananas, two lingerie-wearing women atop each other in a suggestive position and a transgender testimonial that showed the subject's crowdfunding page to raise money for their gender reassignment surgery.
Some dissenters wanted the activities reserved only for the National Day of Silence on April 15. Other opponents focused their comments on the bullying they said some opted-out students experienced during the week.
"There was no safe zone. There was no tolerance for all. And there was no love last week," parent Taylor Tapia told the board April 19.
"The LGBT community, once very open-minded, has now become close-minded, and we are suffering the trickle-down affect of that at our school," she said. "Parents who raised concerns about the approach and quality of the curriculum, who were in support for a Day of Silence, were dismissed and silenced and as a result, feelings of disgust, distrust and disconnection occurred from both sides."
Luke Sutton, a Windemere Ranch seventh-grader, said some of his peers mocked the videos and didn't take them seriously, and one eighth-grader launched verbal abuse at him for being a Christian who opted out.
"No one should be bullied for who they are, but these lessons that you have brought to my school made it only worse," he said to the board. "People at my school make false judgments on who I am. This is not true. I accept everyone for who they are, and I love everyone no matter what they believe."
School board members, who decried bullying inflicted on students who opted out, also offered ringing endorsements of the Acceptance Week LGBT lessons that focused on stopping -- as board member Denise Jennison put it -- "bullying and harassment of a very vulnerable portion of our population at every single one of our school sites."
Jennison emphasized the need to promote "mutual understanding and respect for all individuals" without imposing one's beliefs on others.
Board member Rachel Hurd said the fact the lessons were developed by students was vital because the clips showed "a little bit more about what these kids struggle with."
Board vice president Mark Jewett said he watched the videos with his 13-year-old daughter and that led to what he felt was their first "adult conversation." He added it was important for children to be safe at school, and students who don't feel safe will likely be less engaged at school and in their education.
The Windermere Ranch principal, who said he thought "the lessons were well-received and went very well," noted that some lesson content, including YouTube videos, were revised based on feedback from parent objectors before school and district officials endorsed the Acceptance Week without further changes.
Bolin said it's common for the campus to host weekly leadership programs based on the school's character traits, and the Acceptance Week lessons followed the school's goals of promoting inclusion and supporting all students' right to learn at a high level in a safe environment.
About 16% of the student population opted out of the lessons occurring in the day's end academic prep periods, Bolin said. Non-participating students either headed home or went to the multipurpose room to do what they'd normally do during the period, such as study or complete homework.
The highest percentage of opt-out students were sixth-graders whose parents thought their children weren't mature enough for those conversations. Two students were excused from the whole week of school by their parents.
Bolin acknowledged that if a week LGBT-focused lessons become an annual event, school officials may consider different content for different grade levels.
Board member Greg Marvel, toward the end of the conversation that wrapped up around 11:15 p.m., also advocated for a broader conversation in the future about acceptance and tolerance education across the district: "How do we take this appropriately to the next level and be inclusive in the discussion and presentation."
The board heard a variety of perspectives during the April 19 meeting. Here's a snapshot of some of the other citizen commentary, listed in the order they were presented. (It took about an hour and 10 minutes before the board and audience heard from the first of several dissenters.)
- "We realized that many students at WRMS were not aware that using a term like 'that's so gay' is offensive and hurtful," Lauren Ottley, leadership class rep.
- "My students in the past few years have told me some eerily similar stories to those that I heard when I was in high school: An intense fear of coming out at home, and more commonly, a fear of being outed at school. My students, your students, are still turning to drugs, alcohol, self-injury and suicide due to self-hatred and their fear of returning to school where they are bullied for who they intrinsically are," Jennie Drummond, MVHS teacher and SRVHS grad.
- "It's scary as a freshman to feel like you're walking into a minefield, where somebody might accept you and somebody might believe that you're going to hell," said Madison Miszewski, president of Monte Vista's GSA. "These weeks and these days make a difference."
- "By remaining silent for an entire day and publicizing the reasons for our silence, our school must confront and acknowledge our silence as part of a systemic pattern of both unintentional and intentional homophobic and hetero-normative messages," student Claire Bekker said, adding:
"And more importantly, the Day of Silence and Acceptance Week are opportunities for empowerment and validation. ... We are receiving the representation and validation that is so crucial to our self-worth."
- "Discrimination is fueled by ignorance, which starts with a lack of education," Saadhana Deshpande, president of California High GSA, said. "Do we really want to create another generation of close-minded, ignorant youth?"
- "I am the proud mother of a kid who's graduating college next month on time, great grades. My kid's also a former lesbian. In addition, he's now my awesome son," parent Jacquie Guzzo said. "He always acted in accordance with what was expected of him. He went through K-12 stealth. He pretended to be somebody he wasn't."
"I recognize that we are so lucky that we didn't lose him during all those years of silence," Guzzo added, crying and smiling through the tears.
- "Heck, it's a lot more relevant than some of the time my kid has spent in class this year," parent Sara O'Gara said, drawing laughs with her quip in support of the Acceptance Week.
- "Diversity should not be a threat, but it often is. This flaw runs deep," parent Ryan King.
- "The week-long activity at WRMS should not be termed leadership (week). It should be termed exactly what it is, which is an LGBT acceptance week, which is fine," parent Kemi Aladegbami said.
"Sexual images should not be shown in school. There's no justification for it. And if you're going to show any material with sexual images, it should be an opt-in," she added. "Everybody's rights and values should be respected, and the parents, especially, should have the ability to determine what is right for their own kids."
- "(Our concerns) weren't to stop or squash anyone. It was nothing like that ... There is no reason why you should think I hate you. I don't," Windemere Ranch parent Robyn Barney said.
"For me ... I knew the maturity level of my child and I knew what she could handle and what she couldn't handle," she added. "I do believe in tolerance for all. I believe it goes both ways."
- Parent Alicia Sutton said many of the opt-out students were branded "bigots and people who hated the LGBTQ community as a whole."
"In my family, that is not how we feel. But my son was treated that way," she said. "If the goal is really tolerance, then let's show some real tolerance and let's stand together and not be divided but let's be united and let's come to a compromise so that we can really teach love, acceptance and unity for all people regardless of their beliefs."
- Parent Taylor Tapia said the week pitted students and the community "into a battleground of right vs. wrong" with some students participating with spirit colors and attending the lessons while others weren't.
"I ask the board to carefully reconsider an approach that is best for all when tackling this issue for at-risk kids," she said.
- "I respect your right to opt out of those lessons for your child because that is important to you," board member Denise Jennison said, adding:
"What I don't agree with is the people who don't want the lessons to be a certain way believe that their voice should affect the lives all of the other children because there are an equal, if not greater, number of parents on the other side of that argument who in fact believe that those lessons are very important for their children and they want their children to experience them."
- "What we have to do as a community, what we have to do as a district and as educators, we must get people to understand that you can have differences but that doesn't make somebody wrong, evil, somebody you have to hate," board president Greg Marvel said.