Roaring Fork Schools board hears support, criticism over LGBTQ+ support ‘toolkit’
A new guide for staff and students developed by the Roaring Fork School District to promote awareness and support around gender identity and equity drew mostly support — but some criticism — from a large crowd of attendees at Wednesday’s school board meeting in Carbondale.
The “Toolkit for Supporting Transgender and Gender Expansive/Nonconforming Students” has been in the works for several months, as the district began looking at ways to better support the district’s LGBTQ+ community, said Anna Cole, chief of student and family services for the district.
“Roaring Fork Schools have a deep commitment to establishing a sense of belonging and support for all students’ success,” she wrote in a memo to the board. “Yet, we know that transgender, gender expansive and LGBTQ+ students are more isolated, feel less supported and are more subject to bullying and ostracism than any other group of students.”
She cited statistics from recent student surveys in the district, where more than 60% of cisgender (gender assigned at birth) high-school students feel safe and a sense of belonging at their school. However, just 30% of students who identify as genderqueer or nonbinary feel that way, Cole reported.
“If we look at what our kids are telling us, there is a real discrepancy between the kids who identify as cisgender and those who identify genderqueer or nonbinary,” she said.
Most concerning is the trend toward thoughts of suicide for those latter students. While 19% of cisgender students expressed suicidality, 59% of students from the LGBTQ+ population indicated they had suicidal thoughts, she noted.
“This is really concerning to us, and it’s a trend in the wrong direction,” Cole said.
The toolkit was designed to give staff and students the resources to support gender-nonconforming students in the district, as well as best practices around the use of preferred pronouns for gender identity and other preferences.
Superintendent Jesús Rodríguez also referenced the toolkit in an open letter to district parents, staff and students last week and said schools can do a better job of supporting all students equitably.
“While I know not everyone is personally comfortable with LGBTQIA+ identities, I do expect that, at a bare minimum, all of our students, staff and visitors respect and honor each other’s names, pronouns, genders and sexual orientations in our schools,” he wrote. “… The humane act of affirming gender identities, respecting pronouns and affirming sexual orientation can save lives and undoubtedly will create a stronger sense of belonging for all of our students …”
The topic drew one of the largest live audiences to a school-board meeting in some time, rivaling the virtual meeting attendance as the district grappled with COVID-19 protocols and policies in 2020 and ‘21.
More than 100 people, including several students, packed the meeting room on Wednesday night at the District Offices in Carbondale, mostly in support of the toolkit and the district’s acknowledgement of the issue.
“This is critically important to me, and I believe every student and staff member must feel welcome and safe in our schools and in our community,” said Carbondale parent Ellen Freedman, who said she has a transgender nephew. “This should feel personal to every person in this room because we all have LGBTQ+ people in our lives, whether we know it or not.”
Basalt parent Chris Becker said the toolkit simply provides guidance on how best to help a particular group of students and staff who exist.
“Whether we’re personally comfortable or not, we need to help them feel accepted and empowered and to know that their lives matter,” he said.
Jax Carpenter is a senior at Roaring Fork High School who was able to do an official name change and has since felt more accepted and part of the school community.
“It has made a huge difference in me feeling comfortable at school and seen,” Carpenter said. “It really made going to school a lot easier where, instead of worrying about being dead-named or referred to by the wrong pronouns, I just have to worry about what homework I have to get done.”
Critics, however — including several members of the Cornerstone church in Basalt, along with Pastor Jim Tarr — turned out for the meeting. Representatives from the group expressed concerns about transgender students sharing restrooms and locker rooms with cisgender students, and students being put in uncomfortable situations around use of pronouns.
“I completely agree, all students should be treated with kindness and respect,” said Elizabeth Taylor. However, she continued, “it’s one thing to identify as a gender, but quite another to compel others to use special pronouns and to open bathrooms and locker rooms to transgender students or allow transgender students onto sports teams of the opposite sex. … The rights of those not identifying as transgendered are being trampled.”
Added Angela Rooding: “One group shouldn’t be singled out for receiving kindness. No doubt, this is going to create more problems that it addresses, and it puts students and staff in an uncomfortable situation.”
Not everyone who was on the wait list to speak before the school board was able to speak their peace before the imposed time limit for public comment expired.
School-board members expressed unanimous support for the toolkit, and the resources and guidance that it provides.
“We can all have our feelings and beliefs, and everyone is entitled to that,” board Director Kenny Teitler said. “But, the statistics go beyond beliefs and show how people are feeling.
“There’s a quote about making the choice between being right and being kind, and I think in this time we can choose to be kind and support all of our students and allow them to flourish in their school environment.”
The board pledged to continue the conversation and to gather feedback through the school and district-accountability committees, as well as other public forums.
The United States Departments of Education and Health and Human Services will begin sending free Covid tests to schools, which the Aspen School District will take advantage of when their current stock runs low.