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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

School culture wars give rise to candidates and activists defending LGBTQ+ rights

The intersection of Spokane Falls Boulevard and Howard Street, just outside Riverfront Park, was filled with a mix of colored panels that have meaning for people in the LGBTQ+ community before the 2023 Spokane Pride Parade.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Grace Deng Washington State Standard

It started with opposition to masks during the pandemic. Then came pushback to critical race theory and sex education. Lately, it’s book bans and controversies over pronouns and other LGBTQ+ inclusive practices.

As in other parts of the country, public schools in Washington have increasingly been dragged into ideological battles, targeted by groups like Moms for Liberty that say they’re pushing for parental rights and guarding against progressive policies that go too far.

But critics see a movement rooted in discrimination, conspiracy theories, and harassment of parents, teachers and school officials that seeks to discredit public schools. And in some parts of the state, they’re beginning to fight back. It’s a development that can be seen in school board races on Tuesday’s ballot and community groups forming to support LGBTQ+ students.

Take Erin Smelser, a parent who started a local pride event in 2021 after Peter Rosenkranz, the superintendent at La Center School District in southwest Washington, denied her request for a middle school gender and sexualities alliance, or GSA, club. The alliances are meant to be a refuge for LGBTQ+ students. Smelser said Rosenkranz cited his own beliefs about gender and sexuality as reasons for the denial.

“That ticked me off,” Smelser said.

So Smelser organized a Rainbow Walk, a pride parade for the Clark County community. About a hundred people showed up the first year.

La Center also eventually got a middle school GSA, which Rosenkranz said he fully supports. “We’re allowed to learn along the way just like our children are,” he said.

“It feels like we’re trying to stop a tidal wave,” Smelser said. “But we’re making steps. We’re making progress.”

Still, since March, the La Center School District has been embroiled in a controversy over its gender policy, which restricts conversations about pronouns in classrooms and requires teachers to tell parents who ask if their child changes their name or pronoun at school.

Rosenkranz told conservative talk show host Lars Larson that the policy is about keeping districts focused on academics. He told the Standard that withholding information from parents about what’s going on with their child also puts him in a predicament.

“(The policy) is written from a place that we understand that all parents love their children,” Rosenkranz said.

But S, a 17-year-old gender-fluid student at La Center, doesn’t see it that way. They pointed out that some LGBTQ+ students could become victims of violence if they’re outed to families under the policy. The policy, S said, has also emboldened bullies. (The Standard agreed to identify S only by their first initial due to fears of further harassment).

S has been called slurs in the school’s hallways and knows an LGBTQ+ friend who was pushed up against a wall. S also said they’ve helped friends through mental health crises because of the school’s environment.

Rosenkranz said La Center’s gender policy allows parents to intervene before a mental health crisis occurs, and that any child being bullied should reach out to the school’s administrative team.

S said the administration has been dismissive of their concerns.

“I fear for my friends’ safety and my safety,” they said.

But amid the turmoil at La Center, Clark County Pride has only grown in size. This year, around 500 people showed up. S has been to two Rainbow Walks as a representative of the high school’s GSA.

Smelser isn’t the only person in La Center who’s taking action. In March, a group of educators, students and parents filed a civil rights complaint with the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The complaint alleged the district’s gender policy is discriminatory and cited state laws meant to protect LGBTQ+ students. Rosenkranz said the policy aligns with what’s required by state law. State officials are still investigating.

Moms for LGBTQ+ rights

Courtney Normand, the Washington state director of Planned Parenthood’s advocacy wing, said it seems like more school board candidates are running this year in response to the rise in anti-LGBTQ views, advocacy against sex ed and calls for book bans.

Planned Parenthood has endorsed candidates who’ve staked out opposition to these types of positions.

“All of these kinds of things have always been here,” Normand said. “But we’re in a particular climate that really brings forward the risk of folks like that becoming leaders.

“There were certainly some candidates who told us, ‘The reason why I’m running is because I see what’s going on in our school district, and I’m very concerned for the young people who are being impacted directly by these cultural wars.’ ”

One school board candidate on the ballot this year is Kat Stupka, a mom whose LGBTQ+ kid goes to Hockinson School District in Clark County.

Stupka moved to Washington from Texas last summer, hoping to “get away from the hatred” and the state’s anti-LGBTQ legislation. She knew Washington state was generally progressive, and Hockinson’s school district was highly rated. She had no idea she was stepping into a community where tensions over LGBTQ issues at schools were running high.

“We get here, and then pretty immediately our kiddo … almost right out of the gate started getting bullied, called names,” Stupka said. “Once it starts happening to your kids, you kind of get brought into this protective circle of mama bears. They tell you the stories about what’s been happening to their children … I had to apologize to my 14-year-old.”

Stupka said that the district “had the script of, ‘We’re supportive, we’re here for you, this is not OK.’ ” But she alleges there wasn’t any action after anti-LGBTQ+ bullying incidents.

Hockinson’s superintendent did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the school’s website says district staff will follow up on every reported incident of bullying and the district is “100% dedicated to preserving a safe and respectful environment for all students.”

After a particularly bad incident where Stupka’s child was bullied, she decided to run for a seat on the school board. While she’s running unopposed, she’s still experienced opposition to her campaign.

On social media, a former Hockinson teacher screenshotted the Facebook profiles of her and a fellow candidate, which have pride flags in them, and used the photos to call on people to run against them. “Moms for America will back you and so will many others!” the post said, referring to a group aligned with the better-known Moms for Liberty.

Stupka’s heard whisperings of a potential write-in candidate, backed by Moms for America. But as Election Day approached, it wasn’t clear whether support had formed for any write-in contender.

Clark County, where La Center and Hockinson are located, is a politically divided area. Home to the city of Vancouver, Washington, it’s just across the state line from Portland. Voters in the county backed Joe Biden for president in 2020, but parts of the jurisdiction are rural and more conservative. The surrounding counties lean Republican.

Stupka said she’s heard from friends who have been around the community longer than she has that politics in the area has become more divisive and inflammatory in recent years.

She hopes to change that.

“All we can do is change what we can and try to be what we want to see,” Stupka said.

‘Battle’ over the future of K-12 education

Cindy McMullen has been on the Spokane-area Central Valley School District board for 32 years. She’s never considered herself the “left-wing crazy Democrat” she said her opponents like to think she is, but rather a fiscally conservative moderate.

Even her beliefs on LGBTQ+ issues don’t completely align with many LGBTQ+ advocates. For example, while McMullen “strongly believes” that a student’s pronouns should be honored, she thinks teachers asking kids for their pronouns “goes too far.”

“I thought it was a practical but also responsible compromise to not ask the questions, but to be open and respectful of any student that told us the pronouns they wanted to use,” McMullen said.

That hasn’t stopped activists who are against including conversations about race and sexuality in schools from attacking her, she said. It’s a notable shift. Until a few years ago, partisan politics – and personal attacks on her – were never part of being on the school board.

“It’s very disconcerting,” McMullen said.

This is the first year she’s running for re-election since the pandemic. She’s up against an opponent endorsed by Citizens for CVSD Transparency, which claims school boards are more focused on “gender ideology” than academics.

Jeff Brooks, McMullen’s opponent, said in an email that he is familiar with the CVSD transparency group, grateful for their support and feels “they do amazing work.”

Brooks said McMullen and other incumbent candidates have “resorted to name calling” and described parents as “disillusioned and deeply disappointed by the school district’s performance in all areas of academics.”

School board races are officially nonpartisan, but McMullen aligned herself this year with two fellow candidates known as moderate Republicans: Debra Long and Keith Clark. She’s served with Long and Clark for 16 years, but she’s never organized her campaign with them before. They call their coalition “CVSD Kids First.”

The slate of candidates sought and received the endorsement of the local Democratic party, which they had never done before.

Carmela Conroy, the local party chair, said the pitch from the candidates made it clear they had goals similar to the party’s: They were concerned about Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidates. They didn’t support book bans. They were in favor of public schools. And they wanted to “let teachers do what teachers are supposed to do,” Conroy said.

“They’re definitely not Democrats,” Conroy said. “But their values are in line with our values.”

The two Republicans also sought an endorsement from the local Republican Party, hoping the moderate voices would prevail. The GOP rebuffed them.

McMullen said she has no idea what her chances are in the upcoming election, but she believes it’s important to continue her work.

“We are at a point where there is a real battle over what public K-12 education will be like in the future,” she said.

‘Not just about gender identity and books’

Back in Clark County, Wendi Moose’s school board activism started with a local news article about women who shut down a school board meeting in the city of Washougal, where she lives, because they refused to wear their masks.

For LaDonna Kirkpatrick, it was a more personal experience: an anti-mask protester in Vancouver went up to her 3-year-old, who was wearing a mask, and told her Kirkpatrick was a child abuser. “I was absolutely horrified,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick and Moose started speaking out at their local school board meetings, and eventually, a mutual friend connected them.

Moose is a teacher in Vancouver, so she didn’t feel comfortable speaking out in the district.

But she was allowed to give away her allotted time for public comment at school board meetings to another speaker.

“So I would go there and kind of be LaDonna’s bodyguard and give away my time,” Moose said.

Moose used the word “bodyguard” deliberately. The two women say they look out for each other’s safety. Kirkpatrick said she was harassed at the grocery store and followed. Moose said protesters posted her license plate online and called her school and tried to get her fired. At school board meetings, they’ve been surrounded by opponents. Sometimes at meetings, they said they’d see members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that engages in political violence, misogyny, and racism.

“(Protesters) were banging on our car windows, they threatened harm to the both of us,” Kirkpatrick said. “Her and I kind of banded together and we were there for each other.”

These days, the harassment has died down. But both women are still speaking out, now against book bans and anti-LGBTQ+ policies.

“It’s not just about gender identity and books,” Moose said about her opponents’ views. “It’s about literally destroying public schools.”

The women are part of online groups like STOP Moms for Liberty, where they’ve found support. Moose also helps other people who reach out to her from neighboring districts in southwest Washington, including La Center, where Moose said the rhetoric is “in your face” the way Washougal was two years ago. But they also said it’s difficult to get people involved.

Kirkpatrick moved from Portland specifically because her daughter wasn’t receiving the help she needed at school.

She wanted to move somewhere with a strong public school system, so she chose Vancouver. She said she doesn’t want to lose out on the reasons she moved.

“Public education is so important,” Kirkpatrick said. “And it’s not just for one group. It’s for all groups.

“It teaches kids how to come together and learn from each other’s differences and respect those differences. And that’s got to be preserved.”