Grain Valley Schools found itself at the center of a firestorm of controversy this week following an email to district parents and patrons on Monday, April 25th regarding a directive from the Board of Education for district teachers to remove “Safe Space for all” stickers and cards.
The School Board met April 21st for its regularly scheduled board meeting, breaking to executive session to discuss seven actions, none of which indicate a topic to include a discussion of materials or signage in classrooms.
According to Dr. Brad Welle, Deputy Superintendent of School and Community Services, at least one board member heard from one individual with a concern about the display of cards and stickers by some teachers at Grain Valley High School (GVHS), stating students could feel safe approaching them regarding personal LGBTQ questions. Following a discussion, the board directed administration to have the cards and stickers removed.
Welle stated there was no vote, but was an “administrative decision made based on input by the board”.
Welle could not enumerate the number of complaints, where they originated, who specifically received them, or the breakdown of which board members were in agreement with the directive.
As the discussion was held in executive session, these details were not publicly available. Welle spoke to the general nature of discussions that happen in such sessions.
“Typically what happens is all perspectives are discussed. The Board is typically interested in the implications of the decisions that are made,” Welle said.
What became clear over the next 24 hours was that the implications of the decision played out in public, attracting regional attention from local radio and television stations, metro area politicians, and in heated debates on social media.
Welle shared the following text of an email sent to GVHS staff from administration on Monday morning at approximately 9:00am which touched off the ensuing coverage:
“Recently, we had a PD (professional development) session where we made available stickers for teachers to put up outside their rooms. Some were uncomfortable with how those stickers were rolled out and communicated. Therefore, I am asking teachers to take down the stickers from outside their room. Please come talk to me if you have questions or concerns.”
According to three staff members who spoke with Valley News, the email was not well received. Several staff took to social media with messages of love and support for all students, and reiterating their classrooms were safe and welcoming spaces for all.
According to one staff member who spoke with Valley News, “I had heard rumors that something was coming down, but I was disappointed to receive the email.”
Once word got out regarding the directive sent on Monday morning to GVHS staff, the district issued a statement in the afternoon via email to district parents and patrons. The statement read:
“The School Board recently received a concern about the display of cards and stickers by some high school teachers to signal students could feel safe approaching them regarding personal LGBTQ questions. The Board directed the administration to have the cards and stickers removed.
Our goal is for every classroom to be a safe place for all students, not just in classrooms where teachers choose to display a particular sign.
We remain committed to providing professional development to help our staff create a safe, collaborative, and inclusive environment, consistent with our core beliefs, where each student feels a sense of belonging. The use of these cards, however, is determined to not be an appropriate step at this time.”
As the spotlight on the district continued from local television and print media as well as social media, the district sent the following follow-up email to district patrons on April 26th:
“We appreciate the comments we have received since communicating the decision to remove safe place cards and stickers from high school classrooms. The feedback will help us be better.
An inclusive environment is essential, including for our student LGBTQ community. We recognize there is important work ahead of us to ensure an inclusive school environment.
In the upcoming weeks, we will host listening sessions for our community stakeholders, so our students, families, and staff have an opportunity for dialogue. School board members and the administration will participate. We will use this input to drive the action that will follow so that together we become the school district our community expects.”
According to a staff member at the high school who spoke with Valley News, the stickers have been posted in several classrooms for longer than this school year. A supply of the “Safe Space for all” stickers were made available to staff during a professional development event in March, and several teachers put them up in their classrooms or on their doors.
“I’ve had the sticker in my room since January. Other teachers have had similar stickers in their rooms for literally years,” another staff member shared.
The topic of the professional development (PD) event was just one in a series centered around topics resulting from student satisfaction surveys that, according to one of the teachers who spoke with Valley News, “indicated the majority of our minority students did not feel safe”.
“This has been a three-year process of PD blocks, and optional lunch and learn programs, with very specific topics on how to support students who fall into a number of minority categories, including gender, race, LGBTQ, and socioeconomic status. The focus has been to explore how we are not creating a space for them and gain knowledge on how to best support students so learning can take place.”
The staff member praised the work of the school’s diversity committee. “I am very proud of the work of our diversity committee. They have been so thorough.”
According to another staff member, the school also works with student focus groups to get their input.
“It is a mixed bag of students: various grades, various backgrounds, various experiences. The goal is to make sure we are meeting the needs of all students.”
Two staff members Valley News spoke with stated they had never heard a complaint or concern from a student, parent, or staff member regarding the cards and stickers before this week. Another staff member stated they had two follow up clarification conversations with teachers regarding topics covered in PD sessions, but “I believe it’s been proceeding very well culturally. There have been some real world events recently that stimulated good conversation as a whole.”
One of the PD topics discussed at the March training where the cards and stickers in question were offered related to inappropriate and offensive language between students. Asked if language is an issue regularly, all staff members interviewed said yes.
“Just today, I had to correct a student for calling another student a “n----". Another student called a student a “slut”, and another student called a fellow student a “pussy”, one staff member shared.
“This is part of what our ongoing PD explores – helping students take accountability for the words that fly out of their mouth. Asking them to think about the word they just used and making sure they reflect and think about how their words impact others.”
“Inappropriate language as a whole is a problem in education. This is nothing new with teens who are influenced by media and pop culture, and trying to fit in. What I think is different is awareness is up, and our ability to call out that behavior is probably more acceptable now. To me it is a positive thing about the culture we are trying to establish here,” one staff member stated.
“People think that when they see ‘safe space’ as it relates to LGBTQ, that students are coming to teachers to talk about sex. That could not be further from the truth. They come to me to talk about specific instances where someone has used inappropriate language or bullying language or behavior and they know I will help them address the situation. Students must first feel they are loved and safe in a building before learning can take place.”
“That is why professional development on how to address these issues is so important. This is no different than going through active shooter training, where I practice jumping in front of a bullet for my students. Safety is safety no matter what form it comes in.”
“I will tell you that the stickers or signs have not impacted the climate or culture of the building or created a distraction to learning. What was a non-issue five days ago has taken an inclusive and loving culture that we have tried to build and now completely blowing it up, and during a week where we are trying to focus on end-of-course exams.”
According to staff Valley News spoke with, very few if any of the teachers have removed the stickers per the board’s directive.
When asked about the sticker on their door, one staff member said, “I can tell you one thing for sure. I will not be taking down my sticker.”
Two of the staff members Valley News spoke with indicated they have had several conversations with students since the controversy erupted earlier this week, and many express concerns regarding their safety at school.
“Several students have talked to me about their concerns. Many feel scared and unsafe.”
Another staff member indicated the directive from the board has caused them to reconsider the profession and their future at Grain Valley.
“It is getting harder to fight the good fight. We have the best administrative team at GVHS, and I do not want to give up on my kids. But it is getting harder.”
“What I do know is the decision of seven individuals does not reflect the culture in the building or the majority of our community. I am a member of this community and a parent in this district. I love this community, and the decision that was made is not a reflection of the majority of our populace.”
How those seven board members received and communicated complaints and the decision making behind the directive that followed remains out of reach in terms of public record.
Grain Valley resident Dennis Ellsworth is executive director of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, which promotes awareness of the state’s landmark law protecting the public’s access to the meetings, deliberations, and records of public governmental bodies. He said at times officials must be reminded of their responsibilities under the law; “knowing” or “purposeful” violations can result in civil fines.
Absent new information, Ellsworth said, it seems clear the school board violated the Sunshine Law when it made the decision to prohibit teachers from posting LGBTQ “safe space” signs in their classrooms. He said the law makes no provision for such policy discussions and decisions to be made behind closed doors, and even if it did, the law would require prior notice of the impending discussion and action and a recorded roll call vote that would be made public.
The school district said in an email to families that the board made its decision after receiving a complaint. Later news reporting established that the discussion occurred in a closed board meeting and that the directive was reached without a formal vote.
“All of these things contribute to public mistrust, which is what the Sunshine Law seeks to combat,” Ellsworth said. “The public did not know this decision was coming and was not afforded an opportunity to be heard, or even to observe the discussion. No one in the public knows for sure who on the board might have opposed the decision.”
“It would be best to start over with total transparency about how this became an issue in the first place. And by all means, the district needs to closely follow the requirements of the Sunshine Law.”