March 10, 2023 | NEWS | By Leigh Walden, News Editor
In the overflow room for the Colorado Springs District 11 School Board meeting, parents, teachers, students, and community members contend for standing room surrounding two TVs live streaming the tense meeting happening across the street. Among them is an abundance of rainbow flags, jackets, and buttons.
This week, some members of the Colorado Springs community showed out to lend support for students in the wake of a potential new policy announced by the school board in late February. The policy, which has not yet become an action item, would ban teachers from asking students their pronouns.
As the meeting starts, the mood in the overflow room is tense with some folks seemingly holding their breath for the main event: public comment. Just under two hours into the meeting, public comment begins. Board policies state that students begin the public comment period for the first 10 minutes, and one after another, students come to the podium to share what became a unanimous message among the student speakers: allowing teachers to ask pronouns cultivates safe spaces in school.
A senior from Coronado High School said in their comment, “You are telling the students and parents of this district that you want to close the door of mutual respect for mutual benefit, and you are telling us you don’t want us to feel welcome…Asking for someone’s pronouns is a matter of respect, it is not a breach of privacy. My pronouns are your business.”
Other students asked board members to consider students who only feel safe in school — and only with the teachers who make a concerted effort to address them as they identify.
After students finished sharing their messages, public comment became open to all members of the audience who had signed up. Board president Parth Melpakam reminded the audience multiple times that public comment was restricted to action agenda items, which on Wednesday, did not actually include the pronoun ban. Instead, most speakers switched focus to the agenda item of a health and wellness survey that students across Colorado can partake in.
The survey does ask questions about a student’s gender identity, but it also asks questions about feelings of safety, abuse in the home, ability to access a handgun, and other topics pertaining to some markers of teenage health. Throughout public comment, the board room became divided between audience members who recognized a need for this collection of information, and individuals who saw this survey as an invasion of privacy and wanted the board to make it opt in.
An especially memorable comment to some audience members came from Nicole Johnston from Community Health Partnership, who works in with the Suicide Prevention Collaborative of El Paso County.
“Our data we get right now is from the coroner,” said Johnston. “Our data is from after deaths have happened … [The coroner] is concerned about the opt in program and wants kids to participate in the healthy kids survey.”
As commenters wrapped up thoughts pertaining to agenda items it was once again opened to general comments, which brought the meeting back to the pronoun ban. One community group, the Moms for Liberty, showed up in force to push for the restriction of teachers asking for pronouns.
One member from the Moms for Liberty group, Kyle Gilbert, said “It is no secret that there is nothing more important to a child than fitting in at school. It is also no secret that being a transgender child is portrayed in the media as being the bees’ knees when it comes to popularity.”
One after another, community members affiliated with the group or agreeing with their stance took the podium – to the angst of some audience members.
“There was no conversation allowed for the opposing viewpoint. So when it finally came [time] for people to talk about the pronouns issue, there was seven speakers in a row for the ‘we want to prohibit teachers from bringing up pronouns’ side” said parent Brooke Strawn. Strawn doesn’t see the hour restriction to public comment as supporting the heart of the First Amendment, “It doesn’t seem in the spirit of public comment if so many people can’t speak.”
As public comment finished for the day, a large part the board room cleared out. Among them was Erin Davitt, a paramedic with a gender-queer student in D11 schools. “I have sat on the floor with these kids, with these people’s children, while they broke down in the middle of the night at 3:00 a.m. because they know… they’re not safe in their own houses. I have gone home after a work shift where I started bilateral IVs on a 15 year old’s self-inflicted gunshot wound and scrubbed his f**king brain matter from my shoes.” To Davitt, the pronoun ban is literally a matter of life and death.
For some teachers, the meeting was an indication of the recent breakdown of trust between parents and educators. Jared Crawford Levis, a special education teacher in the district said, “I find it really saddening that there is not an assumption of good faith on the part of all the parents in there… like it’s honestly demeaning of teachers and their roles. Sometimes the teachers spend more time with your child than you do depending on, you know, work and everything. And the breakdown of that relationship is honestly just so sad.”
Throughout the course of public comment, both sides endured interruptions, audience performances, and physical removals from the board room. Given the contention this topic has caused between some members, it’s difficult to imagine what a path to rebuilding that trust might look like.
Within the meeting audience, there was no shortage of Colorado College students and staff. One particular on-campus group, the Colorado College Learning Initiative in the Mountains, brought several students to the board meeting. CCLIM works with middle school students in D11, and the pronoun ban has already changed their practices.
“Every day we do name games, and we’ll always ask for their pronouns”, CCLIM member Claire Thompson said, “[The teacher we work with] was like, we’re not allowed to ask them for their pronouns anymore. So you can say your pronouns and maybe they’ll say them back, but you can’t ask them to share theirs.” The pronoun ban concerns some CCLIM members because they feel it interrupts their goals to make the club a safe place for students.
So far, it’s uncertain how the pronoun ban will shake out within D11, but it’s clear this topic is one of intense meaning to individuals on both sides of it. Moving forward Melpakam encouraged community members to call or email board members who said, “we still want to hear from you… most of the board members are responsive.”
CORRECTION: The initial version of this story described Brooke Strawn as a parent and physician. Strawn’s wife is a physician, but they are not.