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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: Students will turn out to see astronaut and Spokane native Anne McClain this week – but some schools are staying away

Astronaut Anne McClain displays her Gonzaga Prep Bullpups T-shirt as she participates in an Earth-to-Space video downlink to a gathering of local students earlier this year. On Wednesday she is giving a presentation at G-Prep, which invited other schools to participate. Some have declined and upset parents believe it’s because McClain is gay. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

On Thursday, Spokane native Anne McClain – NASA space walker, lieutenant colonel, decorated combat pilot, and the nation’s first out LGBT astronaut – will give a presentation at her high school alma mater, Gonzaga Prep.

Gonzaga Prep invited several local schools to attend. But several will be notably absent, including Cataldo Catholic School, which McClain attended for a couple of years while growing up in Spokane.

Parents at the school were informed that if they wanted their kids to see McClain, they’d need to take them out of class themselves – something that left many parents upset because they believe the decision was made due to the fact that McClain is a lesbian. Cataldo students had attended a video chat that McClain conducted with Spokane students from the International Space Station in February, before it became public that she had been married to a woman.

“I was not happy when I heard about the school not being allowed to go, and I wanted to find out why,” said Emma Owen, who has two daughters at Cataldo and who is helping organize transportation to McClain’s appearance.

She said she was told that it was due to McClain’s sexual orientation. To Owen and other parents, that shouldn’t have anything to do with whether students should hear about McClain’s experiences on the International Space Station.

“It’s not about her lifestyle,” Owen said. “It’s about her coming from Spokane, being an alumnus of Cataldo, being an alumnus of Prep, and she’s an astronaut. She’s going to speak about her experiences. She’s not going to speak about being gay.”

In addition, All Saints and St. Charles schools were not planning to attend, according to Owen and other sources.

The decision at Cataldo was made by the school’s three-member Board of Governors, composed of the Rev. Darrin Connall, vicar general of the Spokane Diocese; the Rev. Kevin Codd of Sacred Heart Parish; and the Rev. Brian Mee of St. Augustine Parish.

“I think school kids should be in the classroom,” Mee said in a brief phone interview. “To spend half a day going to see some speaker … some parents might like that. Other parents paying tuition might want their children in school.”

Asked if the decision was related to McClain’s sexual orientation, Mee said, “No comment.”

“I’ve given you the reason why and that’s the reason why,” he added.

Connall did not return messages seeking comment, and a phone message at Sacred Heart indicated Codd was out of the area.

The decision was not made by Cataldo school officials, who referred questions to the office of Bishop Thomas Daly.

Named bishop of the Spokane Diocese in 2015, Daly has been seen as a more conservative, traditional leader than his predecessor, Cardinal Blase Cupich.

The Spokane Diocese issued a statement Monday in response to questions about the McClain visit, saying that Daly had “made no declaration whether Catholic schools in the dioceses may or may not attend.”

“In keeping with Catholic education as one of his top priorities, and valuing the principle of subsidiarity, Bishop Daly supports the pastors and principals of schools in making decisions about school activities,” the statement said.

The principle of subsidiarity refers to the idea that decisions should be made at the most local or least-centralized level of authority. Diocese spokesman Mitchell Palmquist said he couldn’t answer questions about whether other schools besides Cataldo were not attending the event, or whether Connall, who is the bishop’s principal deputy, had issued any such instructions to schools.

Gonzaga Prep officials made it clear that they are excited and proud to welcome McClain.

“We have invited our local Catholic elementary schools and several nearby SPS elementary, middle school and high schools in hopes that Anne’s accomplishments will inspire them to pursue their dreams,” said school President Michael Dougherty in a written statement. “It is a wonderful opportunity for the Spokane community and we are grateful to be hosting. Some schools are unable to attend but many are coming with a variety of ages from fourth grade to high school.”

McClain graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1997 and attended Spokane Community College and joined the ROTC program at Gonzaga University while awaiting an appointment to West Point. She graduated from there and was commissioned as an Army officer in 2002.

She became a helicopter pilot and flew more than 200 combat missions in the Iraq war. She logged more than 2,000 flight hours in 20 different types of aircraft before she was selected by NASA for training as an astronaut in 2013, according to the agency’s biography of McClain. She was the youngest astronaut in the program.

She launched aboard the Soyuz MS-11 to the International Space Station in December 2018. Over the course of about six months, she performed two spacewalks outside the station, including a six-hour “extravehicular activity” to perform maintenance on the outside of the station in March.

While on the space station, McClain did a video chat with students from all over the city at Gonzaga Prep. She answered questions from students as she bobbed gently in microgravity – and revealed a Bullpups T-shirt under her uniform.

“I was inspired by exploration and outer space since I was a little girl,” McClain told students then. “I was 3 years old when I told my parents I wanted to be an astronaut, and that dream never changed.”

McClain was also scheduled to be part of the first all-female spacewalk in history this year – a plan that was later scrapped because there was a lack of the right-size spacesuits.

McClain’s sexual orientation became public after her former wife filed a complaint that McClain had accessed her bank account records online from the space station, which became the subject of news reports on what was believed to be the first investigation into an alleged crime from space.

McClain has cooperated with investigators and insisted that she was only checking on financial accounts, as she had commonly done, and didn’t do anything improper, according to news accounts. But among the ramifications of the story was the fact that her sexuality became public, making her the first LGBT astronaut to be out in NASA history.

McClain’s appearance this week offers a unique chance for kids to hear about her experiences – at least for those who get to make the trip.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Oct. 8, 2019, to correct the day of McClain’s appearance at Gonzaga Prep.