It was as if Craig Peterson had hit the pause button on the Deer Park School Board.
The board, joking like neighbors a few minutes earlier, sat silent and still as Peterson talked about a Deer Park High School student who found “faggot” spray painted inside his locker last spring. Administrators investigated, but the culprits were not found, and no student was disciplined.
“As a gay alumnus, I can really relate to this incident last May,” said Peterson, a 1985 Deer Park High grad. “Most gay students simply run from Deer Park.”
Teach staff how to deal with homophobia, he said, or risk losing gay and lesbian students to suicide.
That plea pushed homosexuality out of the closet in bucolic Deer Park and into the most public of places in a small town: the school board agenda.
The board is now considering sensitivity training sessions for itself and staff. It likely will act on a proposal at its September board meeting.
But the community, a combination of newly transplanted Spokane commuters and longtime residents, is already reacting. Some school board members tread lightly, anticipating backlash.
“I think we can all benefit … uhm, uhh … from training … it’s a delicate … uhm, well … hearing from the community … uhm … thank you, Mr. Peterson,” school board president Mary Baker said after Peterson’s presentation.
“I’m not saying necessarily to advocate the lifestyle,” said board member Bob Peterson, Craig’s dad. “We should think about the kids. Well, I don’t know how you should deal with this.”
Others don’t equivocate.
“God calls it an abomination,” said Deer Park resident and retired minister Steve Stevens. “It’s the ruination of our country.
“This type of thing just fuels that. It makes me sick to even know they are considering it.”
Said board member Bob Moore: “I think it’s time there is more sensitivity and for us to say, what difference does (sexual orientation) make?” Craig Peterson, a former Deer Park High student body president and football player, said he hoped his presentation would prompt his hometown to talk about about gay students.
“The biggest thing I could do was to put a name and a face on the issue,” said Peterson, a member of the Deer Park United Methodist Church. “If I were to go back 12 years, I would have wanted someone to advocate for my safety.”
A member of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, Peterson said he would run a sensitivity workshop for free. Workshops usually include clergy, a gay or lesbian, and the parent of a gay or lesbian.
“I don’t think I need more sensitivity,” said school board member Larry Barden, leaning back in his chair with hands crossed across his stomach. “I think a lot of other people think I might.”
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is not illegal in Washington. No other local school district is considering sending staff to sensitivity training, although most Spokane School District 81 schools have “hate-free zone” signs posted.
Deer Park Superintendent Glenys Hill worries about the cost of training. The 1,600-student district recently cut special education staff because of a decline in state money.
She also worries about community reaction.
“Deer Park is in the process of becoming a suburb of Spokane, but there’s still a lot of old-time feeling,” said Hill. “That creates a lot of tension.”
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