National culture wars on race, LGBTQ+ rights come to WA schools

Right-wing pushback on school policies and curricula are leading to educator burnout — and fear of personal harm.

A picture of Olympia-area K-12 teacher Sara Foppiano.

Sara Foppiano, a teacher and former staff member, at her Tumwater home on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2023. Foppiano is one of several teachers targeted by groups on LGBTQ+ issues, and she has had her association with a BIPOC resource group questioned. (Grant Hindsley/Crosscut)

An Olympia parent group questioning a teacher about her involvement in resource groups for students of color. A measure before the Richland School Board to remove a book depicting gay parents. Kitsap County high school students wearing shirts proclaiming there are only two genders. People at Edmonds school board meetings speaking out against transgender individuals.

Washington is getting a sustained taste of the national culture wars. The pandemic era’s protests against school closures and vaccinations have given way to a push by some on the right against curricula and policies concerning LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color.

News reports from around the nation underscore the breadth and depth of this battle. A North Idaho educator honored as “teacher of the year” announced that she left the state after being harassed for supporting transgender individuals. A South Carolina teacher was reprimanded by her district for teaching about race after her students reported her. In Florida, lesbian and gay teachers have left the profession after a law made it more difficult for them to discuss their own families or LGBTQ+ issues without fear of reprisal.

With its Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor, Washington is highly unlikely to see statewide restrictions on teaching about race or gender. And efforts by citizens concerned about gender identity to put measures on a statewide ballot have been unsuccessful. That has left opponents – which include church congregations and parent groups – to push back in school board meetings and to question teachers directly.

Educators and union leaders say the division is reaching deep into the fabric of their classrooms, in some cases pitting teachers against teachers and students against students. The confrontations are contributing to educator burnout as the profession struggles with a shortage of workers, according to interviews and national studies.

The mix of volatile politics and social media spreading information – or misinformation – has upended the long tradition of parents and children actively participating in their education, according to Chris Reykdal, the state schools superintendent.

“I think the level of aggression and the ability to sort of get to a teacher is different,” Reykdal said.

Sara Foppiano, a former North Thurston Public Schools teacher, is one of several teachers who have been targeted by far-right conservative groups for teaching about LGBTQ issues and for her association with a BIPOC resource group. (Grant Hindsley for Crosscut) 

With former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – who has supported restrictions on teaching in his state – and others jostling for next year’s Republican nomination for president, Reykdal and others say they don’t expect the pressure to decrease anytime soon.

Randi Weingarten, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said she began to note the rise in aggression against educators in 2016, as Trump employed a campaign of acrimony on his ascendancy to the presidency: “We talked about the Trump effect at that point and now it’s becoming normalized.”

Weingarten, who is lesbian and described being in the closet in the 1970s, said “This time is worse than then.”

“I have seen a wholesale attack by a small group of extremists against the LGBTQ community and more broadly against any people that are viewed as different or other,” she added. “It’s a racial attack and it’s a gender attack.”

'It's been frustrating'

In June – Pride Month – students showed up at Klahowya Secondary School in Silverdale, Kitsap County, wearing shirts that read “There are only two genders,” sparking complaints and an independent review by the school district. The review found the shirts didn’t “represent a substantial disruption to the educational process according to the legal definition.”

Complaints came both from students who identified with the LGBTQ+ community, according to a statement from the Central Kitsap School District, as well as from students who wore the T-shirts.

“Moving forward, we will continue to uphold our students’ constitutional rights while also ensuring safe, secure, and welcoming learning environments for all students,” according to the statement. “If an incident occurs where an expression of free speech has a negative impact on others, we will take action. Discrimination, harassment, intimidation, or bullying in any form will not be tolerated.”

Board members, staff and members of the public recite the Pledge of Allegiance during an Edmonds School Board meeting. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

In mid-July, the Edmonds School District Board met for its regular meeting for a round of mostly mundane business, and to receive comments from the public – a mainstay of local government gatherings. But like many meetings in recent years, the gaggle of residents who stood to speak weren’t all there to chime in on the superintendent’s report or the state of the school district budget.

Instead, a citizen walked to the podium and began inquiring about the schools giving out gender-affirming drugs like puberty blockers: “Will the district be dispensing these drugs at the new health clinics you are installing at the high schools?”

Such appearances have been ongoing for more than a year, according to Edmonds School Board President Nancy Katims.

“They think that somehow schools are giving gender-affirming drugs,” said Katims, who added that the school is not dispensing gender-affirming medications. “A lot of what they are putting into their three minutes are things they have pulled off the internet, that’s my belief.”

“They don’t completely just talk about LGBTQ issues; they also don’t like BLM month,” she added, referring to Black Lives Matter.

Some of the speakers come from Westgate Chapel, according to Katims, an Edmonds church whose website lists an activity group aimed at showing up and speaking at the school board. An email to the church seeking comment was not returned.

In Edmonds, the current debates are a turnabout from years past, according to City Councilmember Susan Paine, who sat on the school board from 2005 through 2011. During those years, public comment often focused on budget matters, she said, and occasionally some gentle discussion about sex education.

“I can’t remember a single comment about that other than parents coming in, probably with equal voices, saying can I excuse my student from the classroom if the material is something I object to, and then others coming in saying thank you for teaching the science,” Paine said.

“So it was not at all the pitchforks ... that end up coming at the school board,” she added. "It just makes me sick."

The ongoing public comment against transgender individuals has brought at least one person to the board meetings to speak up for the LGBTQ+ community.

“My main message that first night was that my older kid is trans, and he didn’t go to the bathroom during the day, because he felt at risk,” said Sarah Dilling, 51, of Mountlake Terrace. “It’s been frustrating.”

Nancy Katims, president of the Edmonds School Board, wears a pro-LGBTQ+ pin on her collar while leading a school board meeting on August 29, 2023. LGBTQ+ issues have become a hot-button item at school board meetings across the country. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Not a widespread movement

The push by advocates comes even as attempts to restrict sex education in schools and restrict transgender people have not gained wider traction in Washington.

In 2016 and 2017, a citizens group attempted to get an initiative on the ballot to roll back a state regulation guaranteeing access to locker rooms, restrooms, and other facilities according to an individual’s gender identity. Those attempts failed to get enough voter signatures to qualify for the November election.

Likewise, this year’s attempt to roll back an expansion of the law that allows organizations helping unsheltered youth to delay notifying a parent or guardian if there is a compelling reason not to, like abuse or neglect, also failed to make the ballot. The expansion of that law by Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic lawmakers added protected health care services, which include gender-affirming treatment and reproductive health care, to the list of compelling reasons.

Meanwhile, in 2020, 58% of state voters rejected a referendum that would have rolled back a comprehensive sex-education law passed in Olympia that year.

Now educators are frustrated – and a bit frightened – by the way the culture wars have entered their spaces, in both official and nonofficial ways, according to interviews with teachers and national studies.

In the Olympia School District, teachers have been subject to records requests from a citizens group seeking to expose alleged misdeeds surrounding race and gender.

In one case, the leader of a group known as the OSD Fairness Alliance obtained public records of educators and worked to raise concerns about an instance where a teacher was speaking to a 10-year-old student about their gender identity. That incident – which was reported on by journalist Brandi Kruse – was picked up by the national conservative publication The Post Millennial.

In another case, an Olympia teacher described the impact that questions sent to her by anonymous members of the alliance. Sara Foppiano, who in previous years worked at North Thurston Public Schools, said she received an email from the Alliance in January when she moved to the Olympia School District to work at Centennial Elementary School. While at North Thurston, Foppiano was an adviser for the Black Student Union, which at one point met by teleconference and was Zoom-bombed by people saying racial slurs

After Foppiano moved to Centennial Elementary School, the OSD Fairness Alliance sent her an email: “When we learned that BIPOC groups were starting at CES, we wondered about your role with this group.”

“Have you been involved with the formation, planning or operation of this group?” it continued. “If so, we’d like to know more about your role with the BIPOC group. Perhaps you can help us understand the purpose and activities of this group, how it came to be and who may or may not be included.”

The Alliance didn’t respond to emails seeking comment about its advocacy. In an interview, Foppiano said that direct approach was a first for her.

"It was very unsettling ... like as though it was almost a violation of privacy,” she said. “I mean, it was just that feeling of some anonymous individual or group of individuals went to the trouble to find my name, find my contact information, sit down and write an email, they wanted to make it very clear that they were aware of my teaching history, and use that as, I guess, almost this veiled threat."

"It was the first time in my career that I was directly, you know, contacted in that way, and kind of asked to speak about my involvement in that kind of social justice work," she added. 

Foppiano decided to work this year as a substitute teacher, She would consider going back to a staff position, but the adversarial climate "definitely factors in" on any future decision, she added.

Another teacher at Centennial Elementary School said that the overall dynamic has resulted in a "a culture of fear." The teacher, who didn’t want to be identified out of fear of reprisal, said they knew educators leaving positions because of the threats. 

“Is my family going to be targeted, is my name going to be dragged through the mud?” asked the teacher. “Something as simple as representation of a queer family can cause folks to get hate mail.”

From left, Jim Tracy, Anthony Shapiro, Siri Shapiro and Cindy Whitehead listen during an Edmonds School Board meeting in Lynnwood on Aug. 29, 2023. During public comments at a previous meeting, Shapiro had asked, “Why does this board embrace, teach and promote grooming and the normalization of transgenderism to our young pupils, whose minds have barely begun to develop?”, and also quoted the Bible. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Book-ban efforts

A research report in 2023 from the nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization RAND noted that while educators face limitations not just from lawmakers in states that are restricting teaching and books, “teachers most commonly pointed to parents and families as a source of the limitations they experienced.“

The limitations have “negatively affected their working conditions,” according to the report, and educators are worried about the consequences for student learning.

Those teachers “described incidents in which they faced increased scrutiny from parents and in which parents complained about their lessons or use of materials, therefore making them more cautious or reluctant to address contentious topics even in the absence of formal limitations from their state or district,” according to the report. 

That scrutiny of books is also playing out in Washington. In rural Columbia County, residents were set to weigh a November ballot measure that could have closed the library due to resistance to LGBTQ+ young-adult books. Last week, however, a judge barred it from appearing on the ballot. But educators elsewhere are hearing concerns from a smattering of parents about books being taught in schools.

Ryan Grant, leader of the Medical Lake Education Association and a teacher at Anderson Elementary, said their Eastern Washington district is hearing from more parents concerned about what books might be in the school library. Grant said the first flare-up he’d seen was several years ago, when a citizens group was trying to put the trans bathroom initiative on the statewide ballot. The effort failed, but things heated back up recently, and Grant said he’s also seeing a more concerted push among school board candidates.

Some school board candidates in his district are running in part on calls “to take a closer look at the library,” Grant said.

“If parents make their own decisions, I think that's great,” he said. “When they’re trying to make that decision for an entire district, an entire school board, things tend to go a little sideways.”

In July, the Richland School Board discussed whether to remove a story featuring two gay parents that is included in some curricula for fourth graders. The objection came from a parent who described the book as “gender ideology” and asked that it be removed from the school curriculum. After a lengthy debate, the board voted to uphold the review by a superintendent and a committee on instructional materials and keep the book in the curriculum. 

In this case, several people came to public comment to advocate against restricting “Adventure in El Yunque” by Christopher Rodriquez. The two-page story features a 10-year-old child who is out on a hike with her two dads, according to school board materials.

One commenter, Zoë Smith, described herself as lesbian and told the board “There is nothing wrong with loving caretakers taking a special birthday hike with their children.”

“Yes, to the chagrin of many members of the board and audience, we are real, live benevolent human beings that exist in the community,” said Smith, who is 20 and a recent graduate of the school district. She added: “Whether anyone here likes it or not, there are gay and trans students in RSD classrooms.”

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