CEDAR FALLS — Supporters of Peet Junior High School’s gay-straight alliance packed Monday’s Board of Education meeting as well as an overflow room and spilled out into the halls.
The crowd of more than 100 people came to show solidarity with the group, speak against those critical of an event it held last month and encourage Cedar Falls Community Schools to take steps in response.
A pop-up event was held by the group, called Difference, outside the school Sept. 23 after a gay student was bullied, according to organizers. Rainbow flags were displayed while doughnuts and rainbow stickers were given away in an effort to show kindness and be welcoming to all students. The rainbow symbol has been adopted by groups supporting people with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender orientations.
It became a flash point after a parent recorded a confrontation with two organizers and a discussion with the principal registering complaints about the event. The recording has been widely seen across the Cedar Valley on social media. The district responded to the concerns by saying that, although organizers had permission to hold the event, the location along the pathway to the school’s entryway was an issue for those who didn’t want to participate.
Andrew Van Horeweghe, one of eight people who spoke on the topic during a public comment period, criticized the district’s response.
“This event was a step in the right direction until the district backed down. There was no forced participation in this event,” he said, adding that it wasn’t part of any political movement. But he did thank Superintendent Andy Pattee for an apology before people spoke, saying “it made a big difference to the tenor” of his comments.
Pattee said the district did not follow its own policies in the way the event was held. “The most heart-breaking, gut-wrenching part of this,” he said, was that “LGBTQ-plus students didn’t feel supported. The differences that we have between us all are what make us uniquely special.”
A number of speakers cited statistics about the greater likelihood LGBTQ students would be depressed, do badly in school and commit suicide if they are not supported.
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Dr. Kyle Christiason, citing some of the statistics, urged the district to not maintain the status quo in light of concerns from people about a visible presence for an LGBTQ group at school even though it may feel safer or easier. For maginalized students, he said, “the status quo leads to isolation.”
“I do not believe any people choose their sexual orientation,” said Tim Purdum. “This really isn’t about belief or agenda. It’s about who they are.”
“Bullying and intolerance have no place in our schools and our community,” said Angie Cox.
“This is about taking steps to ensure the safety of all children in a school setting,” added Michael Knapp.
Ben Christiason, a 2016 graduate of Cedar Falls High School, said the district should embrace the opportunity provided by the incident. “This is the chance to finally begin to create sustainable programming” to support LGBTQ students, he suggested.
Stacy Glascock proposed three things that should come out of the incident: Allowing gay-straight alliance clubs at all secondary schools that are separate from anti-bullying and tolerance groups, a “written statement from the district and the board” in support of LGBTQ students, and an invitation to Iowa Safe Schools to provide training for staff and students.
Board member Alan Heisterkamp agreed with her suggestions. At the end of the meeting, he said he would “highly recommend that we look as a district at ways to increase some learning and education” around the issue.
Board member Jenny Leeper said she appreciated all the people who attended the meeting or spoke. “I think it was great to see our community rally around our students.”