Florence Carlton school district debates gay-straight alliance club at middle school

Debate centered around the requirement of parental consent for student participation in informal groups

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When Joe Alexander’s daughter came out to him as LGBTQ her sophomore year in high school, he wished there would have been more peer support groups like the Gay-Straight Alliance to help her cope with the stress.

“There’s nothing wrong with my daughter; she is a wonderful person,” said Alexander, who has a son currently enrolled in the Florence Carlton school system, at Tuesday’s district board of trustees meeting. “She did not have a support group like (Gay-Straight Alliance)… And I can tell you that the kind of mental anguish and the struggle that these children have when they’re going through these things, having that kind of support would have been wonderful.”

The debate about an informal club at the board of trustees meeting of the rural school district in the Bitterroot is taking place on the heels of a fraught legislative session where lawmakers passed or considered significant legislation impacting LGBTQ people. Public comment about middle school students attending GSA meetings during their lunch hour without parental consent took up more than half of the nearly six-hour meeting, which at its peak saw more than 200 online attendees.

The Montana Human Rights Network said that in the last six months there has been a sharp uptick in LGBTQ youth calling into its crisis hotline.

The high attendance and intense public debate can be partially attributed to the group Stand Together for Freedom, which rallied its members to protest against the GSA meetings. In a flier posted to the group’s Facebook page, it said GSA is a “nationally organized effort to introduce and recruit children deliberately to undermine parental authority into immoral and risky behavior.”

The group’s website says it stands for preserving the U.S. Constitution. However, during its meetings and in its monthly newsletter to more than 400 members, the group consistently pushes out questionable statements about things like vaccines, mask usage and the 2020 election.

Those who spoke in favor of allowing GSA to continue without parental consent said schools should be safe spaces for students. And multiple pediatricians and people with lived experience as LGBTQ youth said the club is critical for students who may be too scared to talk about their sexual or gender identity with their parents.

Parents and other community members pushed back on accepting groups like GSA to go on without parental consent. They accused the group of being “hyper-sexual” and said parents have the right to know what their children are doing at school.

If permission slips are required for field trips, they should be necessary for informal groups too, said Florence resident Kaeden Schweitzer. He added, “I do not think it is OK for minors in any way to be joining in any sexual, be it homosexual or heterosexual, activities without parental consent period. And why any of this is even brought up about sexuality in any way to the minors is beyond me.”

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Izzy Milch, LGBTQ+ advocacy organizer for Forward Montana, said that LGBTQ students who come out to their parents could face physical violence or be kicked out of their homes.

“Forcing students to obtain their guardian’s permission before attending GSA meetings can force children to choose between outing themselves in an unsafe situation and sacrificing a much-needed sense of community,” she said.

After the past legislative session, Milch said these types of support groups are more necessary than ever.

“We watched the state legislature spread dangerous misinformation and hatred. Our kids lost the right … to play sports with their friends,” she said. “We’re reminded that although we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go before LGBTQ youth can live safely and happily in our state.”

A mother of an LGTBQ student in Florence Carlton, Erica Wooters, said she was happy to see a GSA club started so her child could connect with other likeminded students.

“For a student who has struggled with peer relationships in the past, I’m thrilled to have seen their circle of friends grow, and their confidence soar as they have met others who struggle with being different, and with those who choose to see past those differences and offer friendship,” she said.

However, other parents and Trustee Lacy Janes said student rights do not cancel out parental rights.

“I think that’s the big issue at hand. Parents don’t have to let their rights go because kids think that they have more rights,” Janes said.

By requiring permission slips, she said, “I think we’re just saying that parents want to be parents, and when their kid is a minor and living under their household, they want to partake and have say in how they are educated.”

Director of Equality and Economic Justice at the Montana Human Rights Network Shawn Reagor, said LGBTQ people are facing a crisis in Montana.

“This past year alone, the number of crisis calls has gone from two in six months, which is our average, to over 23 in the past six months … it’s very important that we provide safe spaces for people to be able to connect with their peers and get support and discuss who they are in a safe environment,” Reagor said.

Florence Carlton high school teacher Derek Schmidt pushed back on some of the comments made by people opposing the group.

“I would just like people to realize that every word that’s being spoken might please some people, but for many others, including the students who are the reason we have a school, it can be a giant dagger in their hearts,” he said.

Many parents were also confused about what the school’s actual role was regarding GSA. Some thought the group received funding from the national GSA, and others suggested the school is indoctrinating children.

GSA is a pro-LGTBQ youth organization founded in 2005 and has more than 3,500 clubs across the country, however, the Florence Carlton alliance is not affiliated with the national alliance, district superintendent Brian Rayburn told the Daily Montanan on Wednesday. He said the group receives no funding from the national GSA and is not registered with the national alliance.

“The school is not teaching it. It’s happening during noninstructional time. It’s kids getting together to meet. The only reason that there has to be a staff member there is because you can’t have unsupervised kids in rooms,” Rayburn said.

And he said he thinks the group is a positive thing.

“My personal opinion … I’ve been in a lot of schools around the country and most of those schools have grouped similar to this and it’s always been a positive thing for the kids that are part of the group,” he said.

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The second half of the meeting was dedicated almost entirely to a hair-splitting debate about what defines an informal group compared to a formal group. Informal groups are student-led and initiated and receive fewer privileges than formal groups which are required to be approved by the administration and can use the district’s namesake for things like fundraising.

Requiring permission slips for informal groups could create a logistical nightmare, Rayburn said. He said kids would need a permission slip to go to a teacher’s classroom to work on a project or talk to a teacher they like about their day during lunch.

Dr. Lauren Wilson said it is developmentally normal for kids to seek their own identities around middle-school age to start seeking out their own identity and advice from people other than parents.

“It’s also a time when kids often start to have what my son calls ‘crushes’ on other kids and some start to realize that they may be gay,” she said. “At that time, even having one adult who they can talk to about their concerns makes a huge difference to their well-being.”

Wilson is a pediatrician and the vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents more than 130 pediatricians across the state.

Taryn Petit, a middle school teacher in the district for 33 years, said kids frequently come to her room at lunch to play games and chat.

“If you were to institute a policy, where [kids] had to have permission, that would effectively shut down any opportunities for kids to get fellowship, the friendship, the getting away from whatever they want to get away from and hangout and laugh. It would affect the way I’m able to build relationships with kids” she said.

On Monday, Rayburn said the sheriff’s office was called to the high school to remove a group of people who did not follow proper protocol when entering the school. Some of the same people who entered the school attended a Stand Together for Freedom meeting Monday night and said they were called by God to the school and entered it to pray because they could “feel dark forces” inside the building, according to someone at the meeting.

To accommodate the size of the expected crowd, the board moved the meeting to the gymnasium but hours before the meeting, citing safety concerns about people bringing guns to the meeting, the district moved the meeting entirely online.

The board opted not to vote on altering the policy Tuesday, saying it needed more time to consult an attorney and will take the issue up during a special meeting in July. One community member, whose complete name was not spelled out over Zoom, said he was worried about additional controversy if the decision was postponed.

“I feel like kicking this can down the road for one more month is a big mistake. It just opens up the door for more Facebook groups to do more organizing, try to rile up more people from out of our community to come in and make a bigger deal out of this.”