“You can’t talk to children like this!” yelled a woman in the audience at a North Clackamas School District (NCSD) board meeting on an evening in late May. “These babies do not deserve this!”
The woman was interrupting the board’s proclamation of June as LGBTQ pride month at NCSD, arguing that the topic is inappropriate for young students.
As two district staff members ushered the woman out of the room, she yelled at the board to “think of the children.” Her outburst caused an elementary school student in the audience to start crying.
After the room quieted down, NCSD board chair Libra Forde restated the reason for the proclamation.
“A proclamation like this is centered around love,” Forde said. “We’ve had many years of this country showing us how to hate and we have nothing good to show for it. It’s time for us to turn the ship around.”
This has become somewhat of the norm at NCSD board meetings recently—audience outbursts and commentary from parents and other community members who oppose LGBTQ-related teaching materials, gender-inclusive sex education curriculums, and conversations about race. The trend is reflective of the recent wave of homophobic, transphobic, and racist movements, policies, and laws at schools across the nation—a ripple that has now reached the staunchly liberal Portland metro area.
According to LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit Freedom for All Americans, this year is on track to see more anti-LGBTQ legislation in the United States than any previous year, with more than 250 bills introduced across 39 states. More than one hundred of those bills specifically relate to school policies. In March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the “Parental Rights in Education Bill”—dubbed by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill”—which banned public school teachers from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity. A similar battle over discussing race in schools is simultaneously taking place in state legislatures. Since January 2021, 42 states have proposed, introduced, or enacted bills that limit the discussion of race and racism—often referred to as Critical Race Theory (CRT)—in public schools.
Oregon is one of the few states where bills opposing LGBTQ rights or CRT have not been introduced, but the state isn’t immune to the culture war. A school board in Newberg—a city about an hour’s drive southwest of Portland—made national headlines last year when it banned Black Lives Matter signs, LGBTQ pride flags, and other “political, quasi-political or controversial” symbols from the classroom.
In the Portland area, the fight is playing out over the implementation of state education standards, which require schools to discuss gender, sexuality, and race within the curriculum. While the state’s guidance is clear, parents, teachers, and students across three school districts in the Portland region are fighting to make sure the inclusivity of schools is not jeopardized by a growing backlash from conservative parents and school administrators.
The pattern of people attending NCSD board meetings to loudly oppose LGBTQ-inclusive policies was triggered in February after fifth graders at the district’s Oregon Trail Elementary School in Clackamas were gathered by the school principal and counselor for a discussion on gender. The discussion was intended to address ongoing bullying of a transgender student by having the fifth graders learn about different gender identities and sexualities.
Oregon law allows parents to keep their child from attending any or all sex education lessons. Because of that law, parents must be given advanced notice of all sex education topics schools are planning to teach. Some parents considered this discussion on gender to fall into the sex ed category, while Oregon Trail staff and the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) did not.
Enter Oregon Moms Union—a political group established during the pandemic to oppose school closures, vaccine mandates, and mask policies in schools. Shortly after news of the gender lesson spread, Oregon Moms Union held a press conference to publicly oppose it. The group argued that the lack of notification by the school was proof that parents no longer have a voice in the classroom.
Oregon Moms Union declined to be interviewed for this story, but, in a written statement to the Mercury, accused ODE of “rebranding” sex education curriculum to avoid contacting parents.
“If there is nothing wrong with the curriculum, then why not give parents the transparency required by law?” wrote MacKensey Pulliam, co-founder of the group, in an email. Pulliam is married to current mayor of Sandy Stan Pulliam, who recently lost a bid to be the Republican candidate in Oregon’s gubernatorial race. Stan’s platform included banning transgender students from playing on girls sport’s teams and “getting Critical Race Theory out of schools.”
The press conference mobilized like-minded parents to attend the NCSD board’s April meetings, where they accused the school district of introducing inappropriate material to their children and sexually preying on elementary students by talking about gender and sexuality. Some said that teachers were acting outside of their roles as educators by introducing personal values into the classroom.
“It is the parents’ choice to guide their children with values and ideologies, not the school system,” said Amy Reiner, a NCSD parent, during an April 14 board meeting. “Leave the social emotional learning to the parents and get back to school and back to the basics so our children can succeed.”
According to Oregon Trail teacher Alyson Wortel, social and emotional learning is a critical element of the classroom environment—so much so that it’s recorded on students' report cards.
“These are little humans learning how to be humans and there is a social and emotional thread that seeps through all the time,” Wortel said. “Kids need to be allowed to identify and communicate their feelings, and those skills are just as valuable as being able to read or write. We’re trying to nurture the whole child.”
Portland State University professor Olivia Murray, who studies anti-LGBTQ elementary school curriculum, said that social emotional learning has been transformed into a buzzword in recent years that can serve as a catch-all for any “progressive” values—like equality and inclusion—parents don’t agree with. Another common theme in the fight against LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum is parents arguing that their students are too young to understand conversations about gender and sexuality. Murray said that elementary-aged children are constantly developing their gender identities, usually through who they are friends with, what characters they identify with in the books they read, and the examples of gender norms they see in their daily life.
“Often adults blame children for being too young, when it's adults that are uncomfortable with the conversation or the content,” Murray said. “So much of what is taught in elementary school does feature a lot of implicit messaging around gender and sexuality, it’s just we don't question it because, historically, it’s the portrayal of heterosexuality and the rigid social constructs, like boys versus girls."
The initial wave of anti-LGBTQ commentary at NCSD meetings attracted a response from community members who supported the gender lessons. Chelsea Hendrikx, a parent of an Oregon Trail student, has spoken in support of the school's gender inclusive lesson at every school board meeting since the Oregon Moms Union held its March press conference.
“Teachers are preparing our kids for the real world—for a world where people are different, families are families, love is love, and you might not agree with that,” Hendrikx said in an interview with the Mercury. “But not [learning about LGBTQ people] is what leads to the fear and the bullying. That's why I continue to go to the board meetings, to support the idea that that education for our kids is essential.”
“Often adults blame children for being too young, when it's adults that are uncomfortable with the conversation or the content.” — Olivia Murray, Portland State University professor
When NCSD board members express their support of the LGBTQ community during meetings, they have been called “groomers” and “predators” by those in opposition. The district denounced those allegations in a written statement to the Mercury, calling the comments disingenuous and reprehensible.
“The desire to protect parents’ ability to shape their children’s view on sexuality and gender does not give anyone license to stigmatize LGBTQ individuals or their community,” said NCSD spokesperson Seth Gordon in an email. “That is what happens when sexual orientation and gender identity issues are conflated with sexual abuse.”
Parents opposing the gender lessons also called for more than 180 books discussing the LGBTQ community and race to be banned from the district, which NCSD has no plans to do.
“Our policy aligns with American Library Association standards for school libraries stating parents do have the right to limit access to materials for their children, but not all children,” Gordon said. “Anything outside of this policy could lead down a dangerous path of banning books, which has both legal and ethical implications.”
Parent opposition to LGBTQ inclusivity in schools has been brewing in Oregon for years. In 2017, a parent group sued the state, Dallas School District, and the federal government for allowing transgender students to use the restroom and locker room that matched with their gender identity, claiming that it violated cisgender students’ civil rights. That case is still ongoing, as the group has unsuccessfully tried to elevate it to the US Supreme Court. According to Gordon, NCSD has not received any notice of legal action and does not track threats of legal action.
Oregon law is on NCSD’s side. Since 2018, Oregon public schools have followed a state requirement to teach comprehensive sexuality education, which includes teaching that there are different ways to express gender starting in kindergarten and defining sexual orientation starting in third grade. If a school does not comply with the state standards, ODE can pull its funding.
“In every grade, when students see themselves and their families in their lessons, they’re able to feel connected to school and engaged in learning,” said ODE spokesperson Marc Siegel. “When a whole school community learns together and celebrates families, people, and communities—children can feel a sense of belonging and appreciation for others.”
Siegel noted that between Oregon's Human Sexuality Education Law mandating schools use LGBTQ-inclusive materials and ODE’s education standards, the state’s rules are clear.
The state standards have also been the subject of parent ire in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District (WLWSD), just a few miles east of Clackamas. A couple weeks after parents flocked to NCSD’s board meetings, Oregon Moms Union rallied parents to attend WLWSD board meetings as they voted to update the district’s sex education curriculum to comply with Oregon standards.
During a May 2 meeting, the board was tasked with approving two sets of sex education lessons, one for kindergarten through fifth grade and another for sixth grade through 12th grade. ODE sets health and sexuality education standards for the state and school districts, schools, and teachers are responsible for addressing them through curriculum that’s developed by staff or taken from other education organizations—just as long as it meets the state standards. The proposed curriculum for WLWSD’s higher grades was subject to the most parent scrutiny because it was created by Advocates for Youth, a national nonprofit that promotes youth justice and access to sexual education. Several critics in the audience said that because Advocates for Youth is an advocacy organization, its curriculum must be biased.
“Just as religion and prayer are not allowed in schools because they are centered around certain beliefs and values that not everyone agrees with, so also these sexual ideologies should not be taught in public schools,” said Jenny, a parent of a WLWSD student, testifying before the board. “These things are values-based and children are not at an age to understand the outcomes of these choices.”
Seth Johnstone, an organizer for LGBTQ advocacy organization Basic Rights Oregon said that talking about queer and transgender students isn’t an ideology, it’s an acknowledgment of reality. According to a 2020 Oregon Health Authority student survey, approximately 8 percent of eighth graders and 11th grade students in Oregon are transgender, gender expansive, or questioning their gender.
“When parents attack this idea of talking about LGBTQ youth in school, the impact is that kids feel isolated and alone,” Johnstone told the Mercury. “If you're going to talk about sexual health education, it's important to cover the types of sexual health that all people are engaging in so they know what they can do in terms of consent and healthy relationship building.”
Schools can play a major role in LGBTQ students’ mental health. According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth who have at least one LGBTQ-affirming space are 35 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year compared to those without supportive spaces. In other words, schools creating inclusive and affirming environments can be the difference between life and death for some students.
It’s the kind of support that could benefit Amy Paterson Sandie’s children. Paterson Sandie has three students in WLWSD schools, two of whom are members of the LGBTQ community.
Paterson Sandie said her children have experienced bullying at the school, particularly her nonbinary child who’s been called homophobic slurs by other students and harassed in the gym locker room.
“We feel like some kids feel empowered to say these things when I don't think they necessarily did before,” Paterson Sandie said. “I don't know if it's because of our general climate and more divisiveness or what they hear from their parents, but school needs to be a place where all are welcome and all are supported.”
Current and former LGBTQ students in the WLWSD have expressed to the school board that an inclusive sex education curriculum would contribute to a more welcome and supportive environment throughout the district. During the May 2 board meeting, several students talked about how they rarely saw their own identities reflected during their sex ed classes, except for in a negative light. Emeric Kennard, a former WLWSD student, said they still remember a single paragraph in a high school textbook that said transgender people were mentally ill. Kennard said that negative messaging about transgender people, like the textbook, contributed to their suicidal thoughts at the time.
“I went to school every day wanting to die,” Kennard said. “I have an agenda as a trans person—I want to live and I want people like me to live.”
Some school board members were receptive to people like Kennard’s lived experiences.
“Are we at where we are right now because we got to a Y in the road, and no one was brave enough to make a decision to protect these people who told us that they are on the verge of committing suicide?” asked school board member Louis Taylor during the meeting. “Are they at that place because we didn’t educate the kids that are seniors right now when they were fifth graders? I don’t know. It could be.”
But not all were in agreement. The WLWSD board ultimately decided to not adopt the sixth through 12th grade sex ed curriculum, citing community concerns with the curriculum being created by an advocacy group. When explaining her reasoning for opposing the curriculum, board member Christy Thompson called the curriculum “indoctrination, not education.”
The board directed a team of district staff to independently create lessons that address the district’s subject gaps.
Paterson Sandie is confident in Oregon’s standards, but also notes that the enforcement of school policies can vary greatly depending on who is serving on the school board, teaching in the classroom, or otherwise contributing to classroom culture.
Teachers at Abernethy Elementary School in Southeast Portland say they have felt the effect of unsupportive administration first hand.
David Scholten, a fifth grade teacher at Abernethy, considers himself an anti-racist teacher who prioritizes equity and inclusion in the classroom. To Scholten, his teaching style and implementation of the curriculum are in alignment with Portland Public Schools’ (PPS) racial equity and social justice framework, but he feels that being outspoken about equity and inclusion with the school has made him a target of Abernethy principal Christie Petersen.
Last school year, Petersen approved a bulletin board display depicting two tacos titled “Let’s taco ‘bout reading!” to be placed outside the school library on Cinco de Mayo. Scholten emailed Petersen with concerns that the display’s messaging was culturally appropriative.
In response to Scholten’s concerns, Petersen questioned the appropriateness of the Black Lives Matter and “Women’s Reproductive Rights” posters in Scholten’s classroom. Petersen said she believed the posters were too advanced for fifth grade students.
“I really need to know which 5th grade standard you are using for both so that I can support and/or clearly communicate to those who have had recent questions/concerns,” Petersen wrote in an email to Scholten.
The Black Lives Matter sign in Scholten’s room is from Black Lives Matter Week of Action—a national week of recognition that the PPS school board encouraged teachers to participate in annually starting in February 2019. The “Women’s Reproductive Rights” sign Petersen referenced was an A to Z poster of topics relating to women, like feminism, “herstory,” menstruation, patriarchy, and voting rights. “Reproductive rights” is used for the letter “R” on the poster.
In an interview with the Mercury, Scholten said he believes that asking an educator to cite the specific standards for their teaching decisions can be used as a tactic to limit a teacher’s way of delivering the curriculum.
“Administrators in today's climate are not allowed to say, ‘I don't want you to teach that subject’ the way they were in the past,” Scholten said. “So, the way they kind of clamp down on and censor teachers is by making it hard for them to teach certain subjects. The way they do that is to ask them to justify the teaching versus the Oregon state standards.”
In mid-June, about a week after the poster disagreement, Petersen sent Scholten a letter criticizing him for allowing social and emotional learning-related lessons to run long and cut into his math lessons. While the letter itself was not a disciplinary action, Scholten started to feel like his job could be in jeopardy.
When school began in fall 2021, Petersen called in Scholten for a meeting about "performance concerns," according to an email shared with the Mercury. According to Scholten, the meeting centered around anonymous parent complaints Petersen received about Scholten spending too much time teaching social emotional learning topics and that he talks about too many adult topics like race in the classroom. One parent told Petersen that their student came home from Scholten’s class feeling guilty about being white.
Scholten argues that all of his curriculum is age appropriate and fact based. When teaching about Black history, his students start with looking at current day statistics in health and criminal justice to look at racial disparities. Then, the students work backwards to learn about how those disparities developed over time and learn about institutional and structural racism. The lesson is based on the Oregon Ethnic Studies standards, a set of standards created by an advisory group of educators and community members and adopted by ODE in 2021. The standards require fifth grade students to “examine how the decisions of those in power affected those with less political/economic power in past and current movements for equality, freedom, and justice with connections to the present-day reality.” Scholten believes these standards won’t be impactful if teachers are discouraged from actually teaching to the standards.
“Where the standards meet the classroom is through the curriculum,” Scholten said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road because you can have all kinds of great standards, but it all comes down to what the teacher is doing in the classroom.”
This isn’t Petersen’s first foray into limiting educational material. Prior to joining Abernethy in 2019, Petersen was the principal at an elementary school in the Eastern Oregon town of Hermiston. In 2018, Peterson and all other Hermiston elementary school principals withdrew their schools from the Oregon Battle of the Books, a statewide reading competition, due to the reading list including a book about a transgender child.
According to Nita Guidoux, the parent of an Abernethy student, Petersen’s past has raised concerns among parents who want Abernethy to be a safe and inclusive space for transgender students. This alarm culminated in a virtual meeting in March of more than 30 parents where atendees discussed concerns with Petersen’s leadership, including a lack of clarity on her stance on LGBTQ rights, her questioning of Scholten’s classroom posters, and Petersen’s alleged treatment of Latoya Lovely—the only Black educator at Abernethy who resigned the following month due to alleged racial discrimination. According to Lovely, Petersen required her to perform additional tasks not required of her white peers, like signing in and out of the school, and restricted Lovely from using teaching spaces that were available to all other teachers. Following her resignation, Lovely filed a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), stating that PPS’s human resources department did not intervene despite Lovely documenting her experiences with Petersen for months prior to resigning.
Guidoux sent a letter detailing the parents’ concerns to Petersen and district officials in April. Petersen never responded to the letter.
PPS did not answer the Mercury’s questions on whether the district considers an administrator’s position on equity and inclusion-related topics as part of the hiring process. Petersen directed the Mercury's request for comment about the allegations of discrimination to PPS, which said that personnel matters are confidential.
“At PPS, we welcome diverse points of view; and the diversity of our staff, students and families is our strength and the very fabric that holds us together,” said PPS communications director Freddie Mack.
"You can have all kinds of great standards, but it all comes down to what the teacher is doing in the classroom." — David Scholten, Abernethy Elementary School teacher
Due to a redistribution of teachers within the district, Scholten is being moved to another school within the district next school year.
“I think it's a sad day for the Abernethy community when, looking at next school year, neither Latoya Lovely or David Scholten will be in the building,” Guidoux said, “the most vocal anti-racist teachers willing to put their necks on the line to draw attention to what feels like injustice at the school.”
As the school year comes to a close, the fight over what’s taught in local classrooms wages on. Abernethy parents don’t have answers to their questions about Petersen’s leadership, LGBTQ students in the West Linn-Wilsonville district are waiting to see what the sex education curriculum will look like next year, and only time will tell if anti-LGBTQ protesters return to the North Clackamas school board meetings when they resume in the fall.
For Hendrikx, the NCSD parent, the summer break offers a time to reflect on how to better engage people who consider themselves undecided when it comes to inclusive lessons in public school curriculum.
“We won't be able to touch or change the minds of the people who are in that loudest, hateful group, but how do we reach the people who don't necessarily know where they fall but do believe in acceptance?” Hendrikx said. “That’s something that has stumped me. I feel like it should be easier to talk to people about this.”
In the case of Oregon Trail’s gender lesson, Lindsey Sullivan—a parent of a fifth grader who received the gender lesson—believes the school could have mitigated parent outrage and concern by notifying them of the discussion, even though notification wasn’t required by law.
When Sullivan first heard of the lesson from her child, she was surprised because she didn’t feel like her son was ready to talk about sexuality and attraction yet. However, after talking with the school principal and counselor who delivered the lesson and learning that it was used to respond to a bullying incident, Sullivan’s concerns faded. Sullivan believes that notifying parents would have limited misinformation shared amongst parents, as well as provided the school an opportunity to work together with parents by sharing the terms and concepts students were being taught.
“Our generation didn't grow up with this as much, so I will be the first to say I'm not as well educated in this subject matter as I probably should be,” Sullivan said. “So for me, it'd be nice to have the information at hand that they're teaching so I can reemphasize or put our own beliefs in with teaching it to [my child].”
When it comes to people like Sullivan who are eager to learn more about inclusivity, PSU professor Murray believes there is a treasure trove of information available in Oregon, whether it be through the Oregon Department of Education’s policies on anti-discrimination and inclusion or independent organizations like the Q Center and Basic Rights Oregon.
However, those education materials work for people who are ready and willing to learn. For people who aren’t already motivated to act, Murray hopes that when they encounter LGBTQ youth—whether it be during school board public comments or in other areas of their life—they listen to their stories and understand that LGBTQ youth just want the same safety as their heterosexual and cisgender peers.
“I don't mean to ask a vulnerable population like queer trans kids to do all the labor, but I do think that it's really hard to deny someone’s [experience],” Murray said. “Here are these kids that are telling you the way the world is—the way the world that they want to shape is—and we can't not listen to that.”