BAYFIELD – While community members push against LGBTQ-related policies in Bayfield School District, school board candidates emphasize making the district a safe place for all students.
A rainbow flag in Bayfield Middle School sparked a tense community debate – both on social media and in the community – about how the district covers LGBTQ-related topics in schools. At a community meeting Oct. 17, a small group of people planned to “educate” or “pressure” school board candidates on policy changes in the weeks before the Nov. 5 elections.
Now, as Bayfield voters cast ballots in an election that will fill four open seats, school board candidates are weighing in.
“Schools ought to be a safe place for all kids, regardless of sexual orientation, religion or race. That is first and foremost,” said Mike Foutz, the only incumbent candidate in the race.
Several parents and Judy Spady, a constitutional activist who does not have children in the school district, supported removing a phrase regarding transgender status in the district’s nondiscrimination policy at the meeting.
The policy says it will not discriminate on the basis of “... religion, sex (which includes marital status), sexual orientation (which includes transgender), disability ...”
Spady said the phrase “which includes transgender” should be removed because it is not legally required and it’s under local control.
“(The policy) gives huge amounts of power to that special group,” Spady said, as parents at the meeting debated which kids receive support and what the school district’s responsibility should be in including LGBTQ topics in school.
“What power? Fifty percent of them are killing themselves,” said gay-rights advocate Jennifer Stucka-Benally, causing a brief pause in the tense debate. “What power?”
No school board candidates were at the community meeting; however, all candidates emphasized creating a safe place for students and staff.
LGBTQ youths are statistically more likely to be bullied, experience suicidal ideation and to make a suicide attempt than other student communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The fact that it’s almost to the point where one in two trans people are going to attempt suicide at some point is why we are emphasizing this,” said Ryan Garcia, Four Corners Alliance for Diversity board chairperson.
All candidates also said the district was (and needed to be) in compliance with state law.
In 2008, transgender status was included in the definition of sexual orientation, and sexual orientation was included in every aspect of the state’s nondiscrimination law.
The phrase, “which includes transgender,” is not legally required in the school non-discrimination policy because transgender status is protected regardless, said Jennifer Mueller, chief counsel of the Colorado Association of School Boards.
The Bayfield school board approved the current phrasing in 2017, based on a policy template provided by the Association of School Boards. The association provides templates for its membership, which includes every school board in Colorado.
Foutz, the only current candidate serving on the board in 2017, voted against adding the phrase to the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
“Nobody wants anybody to be discriminated against, but anybody in the LGBT community is all covered already under sexual orientation in that policy,” said Spady, who facilitated the meeting. “If you put a policy including them in it, then you’re giving special attention to that group.”
Mueller said the phrase is a clarification, not prioritization, in response to state policy changes and a national debate about transgender status, bathrooms and locker rooms.
Only one candidate, Debbie Wilhelm, received a message from Spady about the policy. But Wilhelm said she and Spady never had a conversation about removing the phrase.
Candidates Matthew Zabka and Amy Davlin said the community debate is important. Davlin said the issue isn’t political for her; rather, it’s just about safety, dignity and respect for students.
“I’m all about inclusion,” Zabka said. He said more teacher training and communication with parents could help navigate sensitive subjects in the future.
Mary Lynne Herr and Wilhelm both prioritized legal compliance and teamwork in future decisions on the policy.
“I don’t think schools, particularly K-12, should be a place for social or political activism. Schools should adopt a neutral position,” Foutz said. His first priority is a safe environment for all.