Over 300 people signed a petition over the summer demanding the Bainbridge Island School District provide parental consent for sexual health education.
The district reviewed the 302 signatures and found that only 22% of signers, 67 households, had students currently enrolled in BISD schools, and the other 78% either no longer had a student at BISD or never attended school in the district.
At two recent school board meetings, the directors and community discussed the petition.
The petition stated areas of concerns, including Course Design, Selection and Adoption of Instructional Materials regarding Comprehensive Sexual Health Curriculum. It asked for greater transparency over class discussion on sexuality and gender identity and sought more parent involvement.
At one meeting, Tom Greene, a candidate for the BISD director 4 seat, said: “Most parents and the rest of the community have little idea what is happening at the schools. Parents now learn what’s going on through rumor and back channels and are way too often surprised and shocked about what they find out.”
Greene added the school board had “quietly removed” and “rescinded the fundamental, long-standing policy that encourages teachers to do their best to let parents know in advance when controversial materials are coming down the pike.”
Greene also said, “Decisions about curriculum and school policy are made behind closed doors, in meetings that are not open to the public.”
He described the school board as “an autocracy, a self-perpetuating ruling group who choose their own successors. And he questioned the school board members’ status and political mindset. “How many of you were first appointed to the board rather than elected? I’m not sure, thus resulting in a rather single-minded ruling polit bureau.”
Several community members spoke up about the petition with language they said was possibly linked to the extremist group Moms For Liberty in an attempt to spread misinformation, remove diversity and equity in schools, and confuse parents.
Public commenter Deanna Martinez asked the group to be critical thinkers and to interrogate what they receive. “When you’re handed a petition that you don’t understand with words that you might not understand, even if it’s from someone you know or somebody you don’t know very well. I would ask that you use critical thinking and make sure that you’re talking about the same things and interrogate and ask what the ‘why’ might be?”
Superintendent Peter Bang-Knudsen addressed the concerns. He noted that Policy 2020 Course Design, Selection and Adoption of Instructional Materials is considered an essential policy drafted by the state Director’s Association and was legally vetted, reviewed by staff and parents on the BISD Instructional Materials Committee, and approved by the school board.
“The policies align with Washington state law and OSPI guidance,” Bang-Knudsen said. “The other important thing is that BISD values parent and guardian involvement. We’re very appreciative and thankful for it, and we significantly and intentionally reach out and engage with their parents in multiple ways.”
He highlighted that the district communicates with families through the Parent Square app; direct communications from teachers, principals and the district through surveys; the Parent Teacher Organizations; volunteer opportunities at every school; and at board meetings.
The school board adopted the state-approved FLASH curriculum for grades 7-12 and also approved the curriculum for grades 4-6. “Parents and guardians are notified in advance, provided opportunities to preview the lessons, and they may opt their students out of portions for all of the sexual health,” Bang-Knudsen said.
After speaking with parents involved with the petition, Bang-Knudsen said they were also concerned about BISD’s gender-inclusive policy. “It’s very important for us to recognize that in addition to our health curriculum, we have a Gender Inclusive Schools Policy 3212 that is also based on state law. It’s important to note that having this policy is based on Civil Rights Laws which prohibits discriminatory harassment on the basis of gender expression and gender identity in public schools.”
Bang-Knudsen said gender-inclusive schools benefit all students. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research by the US Department of Education, LGBTQ+ students experience more bullying and violence due to stigmatization, discrimination and other mental health challenges than their peers.
“All students experience less emotional distress, less violence and harassment, less suicidal thoughts and behaviors. So, while this is not only the law, it is good for our kids,” Bang-Knudsen said. “The actions that we’re collectively taking district-wide to create inclusive spaces are following civil rights. The laws are aligned with the research on reducing harassment, emotional distress and suicidal ideation. We are fulfilling the promises for our district improvement plan we’re creating a sense of belonging where all of our students are seen, heard and valued.”
School board Director Kelly Cancialosi attended that meeting and said, “It was clear to me that, at least for some of those present, this petition really was about voicing their belief that our schools instill what amounts to a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy when it comes to any issues around showing solidarity with the historically disadvantaged LGBTQ community.
“We were told in this meeting by some of these parents that their children shouldn’t have to see LGBTQ displays in their schools, that it was inappropriate for the progressive Pride Flag to be flown in our schools. That teachers shouldn’t be asking our students about their preferred pronouns, that our schools shouldn’t teach certain concepts required in the state law, state-approved Comprehensive Sexual Health Education Curriculum.
“I am extremely concerned with the increasing amount of bullying and harassing behavior about these issues that are being lobbed at our teachers, district personnel and staff.
“They are spending an inordinate time responding to constant challenges around these same issues. The time it is taking our district to deal with these families is taking away valuable teaching time from our children, and I fear will serve to drive away the enormously talented people that are serving in our school district.”
Cancialosi encourages families to learn more about the curriculum by contacting the district. “I consider what these families are proposing around the removal of those things supporting our LGBTQ youth to be against Washington state law in violation of BISD policies and in opposition of the District Improvement Plan.”