By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Ten days after the news broke that Lincoln middle school teachers were advised during training not to refer to students as boys and girls, but instead anything from campers to penguins, Lincoln schools superintendent Steve Joel had had enough.
Enough national stories incorrectly characterizing the training guidelines as a mandate.
Enough fielding hundreds of angry emails and calls.
Enough of being the laughingstock of many a radio and TV show.
Finally, after three FOX News shows derided Lincoln Public Schools’ gender sensitivity training on Thursday, the superintendent called a press conference, and with his school board seated behind him, clarified what happened without backing down.
Concerned Lincoln parents plan to address the school board at its next meeting, at 6 p.m. on Tuesday. Joel also sent email and phone messages to LPS parents and staff Thursday evening “to set the record straight,” citing “recent confusion and misinformation.”
“Our teachers are allowed to use boys and girls in the classroom, and they do so in schools every day across the community,” he said in the message to parents. “We are telling our staff to be sensitive to the needs of all students, and those with gender identity issues are particularly vulnerable to bullying and suicide.”
During his press conference, Joel called it “regrettable” and “truly unfortunate” that the school district has had to waste so much time and energy answering questions and fielding calls about the training on gender inclusiveness used during summer teacher training at Irving Middle School, and possibly other LPS schools.
He said the school district won’t be “held hostage” by differing viewpoints and will continue to find ways to help all students succeed.
Joel said he was proud of the principal, leadership and “adults who care deeply” who provided gender information to Irving teachers who asked for help dealing with students who feel disenfranchised. A member of a district equity team reportedly disseminated the controversial handouts.
“I don’t want to sound defensive,” he said. “We’re doing one heck of a job educating kids in Lincoln.”
But he stressed that contrary to some reports, nobody was mandated to stop using the terms boys and girls or ladies and gentlemen.
“There is no policy, there is no procedure, there’s no changes being made to bathrooms in schools,” he said.
He slammed the national media for focusing on some of the suggestions in a handout called “12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness” advising teachers to avoid separating students by gender, but instead by birth dates or preferences between skateboards or bikes, milk or juice, dogs or cats, summer or winter.
Much of the derision has stemmed from a training suggestion that teachers “Create classroom names and then ask all of the purple penguins to meet at the rug.” Another tip suggested addressing students as “boy, girl, both or neither” if a reference to gender was necessary.
Joel said teachers weren’t told to call students purple penguins, but think about gender neutral phrases that could be used, such as scholars, students, kids or Wildcats, which he said has been in practice for several years.
Joel said the training was done at Irving because educators there were “confronted with children they didn’t have any experience with” and took the initiative to try to help them, which he called a “very progressive, very profound” step on their part.
All the national attention has incited controversy and differences of opinion, but Joel said while that’s been uncomfortable, it “will not deter us.”
In a school district where 80 percent of students graduate on time, and a goal of getting to 90 percent, educators must make all students feel welcome and understood, he said.
“It isn’t about politics or religion,” he said. “It’s about creating understanding.”
School board member Richard Meginnis said many transgender students attend LPS schools and the training is designed to help staff better understand them. The training offered suggestions, not requirements, he said.
The school board did not approve the training, but instead allows building administrators to make such decisions. Joel stressed that the training was part of teachers’ professional development, not something they necessarily shared with students or sent home to parents.
Joel didn’t know who specifically distributed the handout or how many teachers were given the guidelines, but assumed all Irving teachers received the training. He wasn’t sure which other schools might have, despite reports that at least one other high school did.
Will the handouts be used again? “I can’t answer that today,” Joel said.
He said Lincoln parents who are concerned are welcome to call the district, but he’s not going to spend time addressing people from elsewhere around the country who are “responding to something not ground in fact.”
Updated 9:36 p.m. Thursday.
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