LEAD — No matter what the agenda, inclusivity, equity, and acceptance were the overriding themes Tuesday night, as the Lead-Deadwood community weighed in on a proposed school policy setting forth materials and decorations displayed by employees on district property.

The materials the policy addresses include, but are not limited to signs, posters, fliers, banners, flags, or decorations, including images symbols, or text.

Lead-Deadwood School District Superintendent Dr. Erik Person explained where the proposed policy originated from and said the topic is not something that is unique to the Lead-Deadwood School District.

“We’re just gonna’ call it like it is,” Person said. “We have had this controversy in our school district, and I think anybody that denies that, that has been privy to the facts, is not being truthful. It has been controversial, and it started out with some signs that said, “Safe Space,” rainbow on that. What’s been very difficult about this, I think we can all get behind the idea of a safe space for all kids. I think every educator — and I believe this — every educator we have in this district cares about kids and wants what’s best for kids. I really believe that. And I think where things go off the rails a little bit, is we don’t all agree on what that means, on what is best for kids.”

Person said teachers have First Amendment rights, to an extent.

“But the devil is in the details on where that line should be. And this is where we’ve had a lot of dissention and division among our staff over these things,” he said. “I know it’s been very difficult. Been difficult for our teachers. It’s been divisive. And it’s been difficult for us, as administrators. Been difficult for our board. And I know the pressure that I’ve been under is that people on both sides kind of wonder, ‘Well, what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you just put your foot down and say, ‘This is the way it is.’ So the people that want the Safe Space signs and I’m sure we’ll hear from people on the value of those signs and what the message is for kids with that. The issue is, we don’t know where that line is, on how far our free speech rights go and what limits there are.”

Person went on to say, in absence of a policy, it becomes unclear what the district will allow and what it will not.

“And then we’re into a situation where we’re discriminating by viewpoint,” Person said. “In absence of a policy, we have not, as an administration, felt that it was appropriate to silence that expression by our teachers, by our staff. Because they’re not violating any school policy. They’re not violating any law … the attempt with this policy is to address it in a way, granted, it’s not going to make everybody happy, but to address it in a way that is viewpoint neutral. I think that’s the important thing we have to keep in mind. Ultimately, it’s going to be the board’s decision, whether we have a policy, what that policy will be, and that kind of thing. But it’s my job to help guide that decision in a way that’s going to be legally sound.”

Person went on to say that some of the comments he has heard are unfortunate.

“That this policy is targeting certain students and that it is exclusive and out to hurt people and that’s really not the intent. It’s a big decision the board has in front of them, here,” Person said. “It’s going to be unfortunate, because there are going to be some other things that, if we adopt this, we will not be able to allow. I will also note that we are not going in, taking down signs, between now and whenever we have a policy adopted, because we don’t have a policy that directs us to do that.”

School Board Member Tim Madsen asked to hear from school attorney Tim Johns regarding the draft policy document.

“I think anything that you see in the school, the children see, should be based upon approved curriculum and content standards. And that’s the whole idea here,” Johns said. “It’s not a place for social issues to be presented, necessarily, except in a particular course that would be designed for specifically that. And, as was stated, we don’t want to discriminate by viewpoint and this is the control and I think it’s a really good policy that was drafted by your superintendent … we need guidelines and that’s what this step provides.”

Discussion was then had by the school board, just prior to the public forum. Board members expressed they had heard from many of their constituents regarding the policy, either in-person, text, by phone, or by email.

Person said this is not an issue the school district has sought out.

“This landed in our laps and people have not let it go,” he said. “So, here we are … my personal viewpoints don’t matter. I need to try and carry out the will of the board and try and direct it in a way that we can defend, and in a way that’s going to put us on solid legal ground. I know this gets to be a passionate issue and, again, I would remind everybody that I think people are coming from a good place, but we just, we don’t all agree on the way the world should be.”

From the public

More than 100 individuals filled the chairs set up in and stood lining the perimeter of the Lead-Deadwood High School cafeteria, where the meeting was moved to accommodate the large turnout.

Lead-Deadwood Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Gwen Hess, who had requested to be on the agenda, took to the podium first, as a concerned parent, taxpayer, community member, and voter.

“As a parent, I want children to have a safe school, where they can focus on learning and the fundamentals of reading, math, science, and social studies,” she said. “Their education should not be sidetracked by social drama. A school should be a place where every child is treated fairly, no matter what race, religion, gender, age, or background … teachers and staff should be treating every student equally. Students shouldn’t receive special treatment because a school employee decides that certain students’ rights are more important than other students’ rights.”

Hess went on to say that Lead-Deadwood schools should not be a platform for paid staff to show their personal beliefs and political affiliations.

“Our school should be neutral and welcoming to all students,” Hess said.

Hess told the audience it was never her intention to bring more division in the schools.

“From the beginning of the year, my main goal has been to keep school safe for everyone,” she said. “First, it started as a mother advocating for my own children, then it turned into a policy issue that was not being addressed. This is not fair to my kids or anyone’s kids. Teachers should not be able to use their position of authority to persuade students into agreement with their own personal beliefs and opinions, especially about divisive subject matter … especially counselors should be neutral, so that all students feel like they have a safe, professional place to talk about sensitive issues.”

Lasting approximately two hours, one by one, 27 attendees spoke for the allotted three minutes, with three advocating for the policy and 24 in opposition to the policy.

Kerry Ruth cited research from the Charter Project that consistently finds that LGBTQ youth report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to affirming spaces.

“No one is trying to indoctrinate children. There is no gay agenda. We’re simply trying to keep kids alive,” Ruth said. “Anyone who is opposed to that has no business in public education. Classrooms that are not safe spaces for all do not belong in a public school. So I stand with the kids and I stand with the teachers that support them.”

Lead-Deadwood Elementary School Counselor Amanda Bender said this is the first time she has had to hear from anyone who had a issue with the Safe Space signs.

“I agree with everyone who has spoken to the benefits of Safe Space signs and the risk that our LGBTQ youth are put in,” she said. “I did want to just bring the sign that people are frustrated with at the elementary, so that’s the sign.”

Bender showed the audience the sign and said for her decade with the district she has always had some sort of Safe Space indicator displayed.

“This is the first time I have ever encountered a concern,” she said. “I’m fearful that school policies might be trying to be pushed in a direction that would be a direct violation of my ethical standards as a school counselor … I worry about our families that do not fit into their moral standards and the abilities for those families to feel welcome and included in our buildings, at our events.”

Sarah Hannah said if the Safe Space signs aren’t an option, then to come up with a different option.

“If you don’t like this, then what else can we do? Because we have to do something I think it’s clear that we have to do something,” she said. “We have to offer something to make sure that kids are safe.”

Lead-Deadwood freshman Raelie Williams said she is a strong Christian and grew up in a Christian home.

“And I have a strong belief in God,” she said. “The reason I think this is important to mention is because the controversial issues that I am subjected to fairly often in our school district discourages me quite often. When I, a Christian, go into a classroom that I am made well aware the teacher’s standings on these subjects, it makes me feel as though I’ll be judged or hated for even mentioning my beliefs. School is a place where children are to learn and gain education … if teachers aren’t allowed to post Christian or conservative materials in their classroom or initiate prayer with a student, then they should also not be allowed to put up LGBTQ or other controversial material in their classroom or initiate a talk on the subject with a student.”

In response to e-mails she received, District 31 Rep. Mary Fitzgerald, R-St. Onge, was in attendance and provided a statement directly following the public forum.

“After listening to many parents and students speak at the school board meeting, it was clear to me that many students are bullied for different reasons,” Fitzgerald said. “As a mother and grandmother, I do not like to hear this is happening. The school and community need to find solutions to this problem. One young lady said she wanted to be able to pray at school and felt like she was unable to do so. It was definitely an eye-opening experience, and I am so happy I attended.”

Person said the current version of the policy is not the final version and that there may or may not be a final version.

“The attempt here is to be viewpoint neutral,” he said.

Person said Wednesday that he was very pleased with the way the forum was conducted.

“What I really liked, was, I feel like everybody that wanted to be heard had a chance to be heard,” Person said. “And I was very proud of the way our board president handled the meeting, kept things professional, kept things moving, kept it on point, and overall, there was a respectful tone. Some people said some things others didn’t like, but it didn’t turn into a big melee. I think there was definitely that potential there with such a volatile topic. Anybody that thinks the district was trying to do something in secret, couldn’t be further from the truth. That process last night, this whole process, has been more transparent and more open to listening of different opinions than any I’ve seen. I think the board did a really good job with that.”

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(2) comments

tlsdip

This coverage was far superior to the RCJ - thanks. It's sad to hear folks seem to believe that the existence of LGBTQ folks is somehow controversial. I applaud the staff who are trying to help students who are clearly marginalized in society feel welcome and safe at school. And I applaud the community members who took the time to speak up for those staff and kids.

Mr. Silppyfist

Well said. Treating others with dignity and respect is unfortunately not the norm in this area.

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