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TPS school board audience divided by party, colors during LGBTQ support comments

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Despite citizens comments being restricted to a handful of speakers, a standing-room only crowd gathered for three hours during Tulsa Public Schools’ Board of Education meeting Monday night to hear feedback about the district’s relationship with its LGBTQ community.

“This isn’t just about anti-bias training,” Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences teacher Ana Barros said. “It’s about how we’re going to show up for our kids every single day.”

The citizens’ comment portion is restricted to remarks about items not on the published agenda. In accordance with board policy, the sign-up window closed one week before the meeting, thus limiting remarks about the matter to the eight people who signed up to speak on the topic, including some who called on the board as a whole to participate in professional development sessions to provide more support for the district’s LGBTQ students, families and staff.

However, since it was not listed as an agenda item, the board could not take any action on the comments — just listen.

“All TPS board members should receive training on gender, sexuality and how to make the community feel welcome and safe at Tulsa Public Schools,” Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences student Astrid Kin said, drawing loud boos from one side of the room.

Although no individual board members were called out by name during the discussion, references were made to a pair of social media posts from District 4 representative E’Lena Ashley.

Ashley shared a meme in May claiming that American third graders were academically behind their counterparts in China and India because they were spending more time learning about same-sex relationships than about math or science.

She shared a post in June implying that women’s sports are under attack from transgender athletes.

Despite a previous public claim from Secretary of Education and state superintendent candidate Ryan Walters that Ashley was being targeted by a “left wing mob,” Ashley said after the meeting that she did not feel attacked by the commenters.

Instead, she said she felt misunderstood and said she welcomed the opportunity to have a continuing conversation to allow all sides of the community to be heard.

Walters attended the meeting but left before the citizens’ comment portion of the agenda.

Stacey Leigh, a former Union Public Schools teacher, said after attending the meeting that she first wants the board to receive inclusion training and then hopes the training will filter down to all levels of the school district.

When she was still a teacher, she said, discussions surrounding inclusion training among her colleagues resulted in different attitudes in the classroom.

Leigh said she had one colleague who expressed her religious beliefs through posters on her wall and, following discussions on inclusion, she understood that her learning environment made some of her students uncomfortable. She eventually removed the posters so she could equally represent her students.

When Kin was met by boos, Leigh and her friend, Kathleen Garrison, stood behind her, even though they didn’t know her.

Garrison — who sported rainbow-colored cat ears on a headband — said she came to the meeting because she has a close family friend with a transgender son. She showed up for him and stood behind Kin because she said they should have a community behind them.

Leigh said she wishes every teacher would realize that every time a teacher negates a student’s personhood, the students become more vulnerable.

Although the sea of rainbow-colored and American flags made the evening meeting feel like two groups cheering for opposing teams, Leigh said it’s important to remember that everyone is one team.

“Every single one of them is our children — whether they’re waving the American flag or waving the rainbow flag,” Leigh said. “They’re all our kids, and we’ve got to protect them. We owe it to them to protect them and to give them a voice.”

State law does require new school board members to complete at least 12 hours of professional development training within 15 months of taking office. However, beyond stipulating a minimum of one hour each for courses related to school finance, ethics and the state’s Open Meeting and Open Records acts, the law does not list specific topics that must be covered.

After the meeting, board President Stacey Woolley said the school board was offered the opportunity to have an LGBTQ diversity training session more than a year ago but did not have universal participation since it could not be legally mandated.

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My primary beat is public education. I am a third-generation graduate of Oklahoma State University, a board member for Oklahoma SPJ and an active member of the Native American Journalists Association.

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