Policy change stokes concerns

CASPER — Lander school board members voted last week to remove sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy and marital and veteran status from the list of protected identities named in the district’s non-discrimination policy.

Language enumerating those identities were added to the policy in 2019, with the exception of sexual orientation, which trustee Kathy Hitt said has been included for roughly a decade. 

School board members who voted for removing the language said the change brings Fremont County School District No. 1 in line with federal and state discrimination statutes by only listing age, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability as protected classes. 

It passed by a 4-3 vote on May 17, after multiple hours of debate. 

Students, parents and community members opposed to the change say that taking that clause away sends a message to underrepresented students, who tend to be the most vulnerable to discrimination, that they are no longer protected. 

“It hurts no one by leaving that language in there,” said Hitt. “But by now taking it away, there’s a feeling by folks that they don’t matter.” 

A protest against the board removing that language was set for 5 p.m. Tuesday at Lander’s Centennial Park. 

According to student organizers, students and teachers are set to speak, and participants will hold signs in support of underrepresented students.

Board members voted in April to remove wording that described discrimination as “actual or perceived,” on a recommendation from the district’s lawyer during a routine review of the policy. 

At that time, Vice Chair Scott Jensen also brought a motion to strike the list of additional identities, saying they were redundant. 

Sex, which remains protected under the revised policy, could also cover gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy and marital status, according to Jensen. 

And being a veteran, while it does not likely apply to students, is covered under other employment laws that protect staff. 

But opponents of the change say that thinking is reductive and leaves out a lot of the complexities of gender and sexuality. 

“Categorizing all of these beautiful, expansive, multifaceted identities as sex, those are so many lived experiences that you are saying you do not see or respect, or care about,” said Ari Kamil, an organizer with Wind River Pride, which is helping coordinate Tuesday’s protest. “Sexuality has nothing to do with sex.” 

Jensen said he voted to include gender identity, marital status and the other identities when they were introduced to the policy in 2019. 

At that time, he said, he wanted to signal to kids in the district that their identities were recognized. But now, he feels the language was actually excluding others. 

“My concern is that we were signaling that some students deserve more attention,” he said. “I would like our students to know that ... that every student is valued and that no bullying is OK.” 

Board chair Jared Kail and trustees Brett Burg and Taylor Jacobs joined Jensen in voting to remove the language. 

Kail said he’d also voted against including it in 2019, in an effort to “stick to the letter” of state and federal statutes. 

The school district’s lawyer, Tracy Copenhaver, recommended keeping the language covering sexual orientation and gender identity in the policy to send a “clearer message to the public.” 

Hitt, who voted against the change, said that while the board hasn’t been notified of many formal complaints of discrimination or harassment at the schools in recent years, that doesn’t mean they aren’t happening. Most complaints should be addressed by the principal of the school where the bullying takes place, she said, and so wouldn’t be reported higher up on the chain. 

But even that system may be failing, students say. 

One, who asked to remain anonymous, said she and her friends are frequently called slurs offensive to queer people, including the f-slur. Other students once told them they wanted to “put all the gay kids in the auditorium and just shoot them,” she said. 

When she reported these incidents to administrators, the student said no action was taken to prevent any further harassment. 

Several parents with queer students in the district said they’d heard of similar instances of bullying and were worried that removing this language from the non-discrimination policy gives students fewer channels to resolve these conflicts. 

Jensen said that the non-discrimination policy is separate from the district’s no-tolerance policy against bullying, though he added that bullying can turn into discrimination if ignored by administrators. 

“We’re trying to wrap our heads around why people would feel like we need to take away protections, rather than making kids feel safe,” said parent Sarah Reilley. 

Hailey Redden, whose child is transgender, said she “very much” sees a need for including that language to explicitly protect the LGBTQ community in Lander schools. 

Her child doesn’t feel comfortable at school, she said, and they asked to do school online next year to avoid the bullying. 

Last week’s meeting was tense, attendees said. The last meeting to draw as much controversy, three people said, came in fall 2019 when the board voted to allow teachers to carry concealed weapons in school. 

Of the 40 people who spoke, according to Hitt, 36 wanted to leave the language in the policy. 

One man was asked to leave the room for speaking while trustees discussed the change. Shortly after, attendees said, a pair of police officers arrived and watched the remainder of the meeting. 

According to four people attending the meeting, students who spoke said they were exhausted from facing bullying at school. Several veterans also came and spoke against removing the protections for that group.