SIX WEEKS AFTER the Beaverton School District canned him for candidly answering a student's question about his relationship status, gay student teacher Seth Stambaugh is back in the classroom. And district officials—worn down by community outrage, legal threats, and embarrassing national headlines—are promising to reform their approach toward LGBT issues.
The reversal was announced just before a planned school board "listening session" last Thursday, October 21. District leaders met that day with administrators from Lewis and Clark College, where Stambaugh, 23, is a graduate student, and unanimously voted for reinstatement.
"There have been various times when issues with LGBTQ individuals have come forward and the district has not moved in a straightforward way to right wrongs," Superintendent Jerry Colonna told a crowd of about 30 parents and citizens that night, citing staff and community pressure as a major factor in the district's backpedal. "In this crisis and response, I believe we have hit the tipping point where we will see safer, more inclusive schools."
Getting Stambaugh back to work seemed like a long shot on September 15. That was when district officials told him his truthful answer to a fourth grader's question about same-sex marriage was "inappropriate." When the student asked why he wasn't married, Stambaugh said he would like to marry a man, except that it's illegal—an exchange eventually relayed to a parent who complained. So what made the district flip and welcome Stambaugh back?
Some credit is due to Stambaugh, who treated his dismissal seriously—as a student teacher, he isn't protected by workplace discrimination laws or union rules—and decided to go public. Even if, at first, all he wanted to do was freak out.
"I felt like they were asking me to go back in the closet, and that was terrifying," Stambaugh told reporters Friday.
Instead of hunkering down, Stambaugh asked lawyer Lake Perriguey to take his case pro-bono. Perriguey gave legal voice to Stambaugh's belief he'd been the victim of discrimination. And after the firing was first reported online by the Mercury ["Don't Ask, Don't Tell," News, October 7], his story went national.
Perriguey also threatened to sue if Stambaugh wasn't reinstated—usually a sure-fire way to make bureaucrats sit up and listen.
But it wasn't just lawyers talking.
The turning point seems to have come when a surprising group rallied on Stambaugh's behalf: parents and teachers at his suburban school. Twenty-seven teachers from Sexton Mountain Elementary published a letter in the Mercury two weeks ago, saying that even though they didn't all agree that Stambaugh's comment was "appropriate," the district's ban was out of line. Twenty-two parents followed up a few days later with their own letter.
Eventually, in an all-staff email sent last week, Colonna apologized for the "hurt and disappointment" the incident caused. And he promised reforms, including monthly meetings with LGBT advocacy group Basic Rights Oregon.
But Stambaugh is the first to say that promising reform will not fix broader concerns over a culture of discrimination.
"The decision to reinstate me is great, but it does not address the larger issue at hand, which, quite frankly, is killing our students," says Stambaugh, invoking the memory of the nation's recent queer teen suicides, and noting that he still has no clarity about why or how the decision to ban him was made.
Former Beaverton private school teacher Brenda Koenig, who is queer, echoed that sentiment at Thursday's listening session. "I gotta respectfully say, ya blew it," Koenig told the school board. Stambaugh "teaches in a district with a beautifully written anti-discrimination policy, yet when he says something about his marital status, it took parents and teachers holding the district's feet to the fire to make it enforce its own policy."
One of Stambaugh's students, Scullie Langley-Williams (who gave her age as 10 and a half) told the board she was excited to have Stambaugh back. She spoke softly into the microphone:
"If Mr. Stambaugh had said he was dating or married to a girl, no one would have told on him."