RSF school board president addresses claims of anti-LGBTQ actions: ‘We want every kid to feel safe’

R. Roger Rowe School
(Karen Billing)

On April 20, the Rancho Santa Fe School District board received a letter signed by nearly 100 R. Roger Rowe parents and community members who were “deeply disheartened” by board and district actions that appeared to show that the school and community are not a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ youth and families.

The actions occurred last year, including the removal of books from the fall school book fair that made references to same-sex couples and directing a teacher to remove a rainbow lanyard and stickers from her classroom representing that she creates a “safe space” for all students.

The letter requested that the board correct their actions, apologize and “stop their unethical behavior.”

“Supporting all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, is not a political stance. It is a moral, ethical and American stance with overwhelming support across our city, state and country,” the letter stated. “Rainbow imagery is not political speech and acknowledging the LGBTQ+ community is not a political act. It is a demonstration of personal support for real students and families at our school.”

The issue was not on the agenda at the board’s April 20 meeting but the trustees heard public comments from several parents, backed by representatives from local organizations such as Trans Family Support Services, PFLAG San Diego County, San Diego Pride, GLSEN San Diego and the North County LGBTQ Resource Center. The groups coordinated a request for the board to address the issue as a future agenda item, provide awareness training and for the district to follow the law to foster a safe environment that is free from discrimination for all students.

“I think it’s clear that a ‘safe space’ sign causes no harm to anyone and has the potential to help students thrive in a wonderful academic environment,” said parent Stacy Charat. “We should do everything we can to make sure students thrive here.”

RSF School Board President John Tree said this issue was not on the board’s radar at all until until two weeks ago when the board received several letters accusing them of being anti-LGBTQ, banning books and other “awful” things. Tree sent a message to all community members on April 13 (prior to receiving the April 20 letter) addressing the “divisive” rumors circulating throughout the community. He repeated many of the comments as he addressed the audience at the meeting that night.

“My personal view is that I am 100% supportive of the LGBTQ community,” said Tree, who noted he has never detected anything on the prior board or the current board that was anti-LGBTQ. “I believe in my heart that we all want the same thing, we want every kid to feel safe.”

In addressing the allegation that the board banned books, Tree stated that the board has ever banned books or had discussions about banning books—he told the community he was shocked when he first heard about it.

In conducting his own research, he learned that during last fall’s book fair, two board members relayed the concerns of some parents about books to the administration. Tree said district staff then pulled some books aside that were deemed to be controversial, one parent said they did so begrudgingly: “That’s inappropriate behavior, we are going to correct that,” Tree said.

Regarding the rainbow stickers, Tree’s letter to the community stated that the district does not allow any classroom decor that is political in nature and it enforces that rule uniformly. The issue around rainbow stickers was addressed by the prior board last fall in a closed session: “I agree this is an issue that we need to talk about in public, in open session with a full, healthy conversation with everybody in our community,” he said.

As many of the speakers and the parents’ letter noted, they do not believe this is a political issue but an issue of the safety of young people. The letter pointed to data showing that LGBTQ youth consider, attempt and complete suicide at rates significantly higher than their non-LGBTQ peers, largely attributed to depression as well as bullying and victimization in their schools and communities.

“Everyone has a right to believe what they believe at home but at school everyone has a right to feel safe,” said Kathie Moehlig, executive director of TransFamily Support Services. “Affirming our students’ identity has a profound effect on them. Being seen and respected for who you are can lead to greater physical, emotional and mental health.”

Former school board trustee Kali Kim, who was on the board at the time of the actions, said if any decisions are being made the board needs to have discussions in an open session with the opportunity for parent input.

“I know there are fears surrounding this topic,” Kim said. “Please lead based on what we know and not what we fear.”

Tree agreed that the board needs to address the issue and find the right balance for the school district—for as many of the viewpoints he heard that night, he has also heard parents question what is appropriate and inappropriate at school and whether the rainbow is a political speech. He said the topic would be placed on a future agenda.

“We’re going to have the conversation, we’re going to have it in public,” Tree said. “We’re going to find out how we can best support all of our students… We all want to support all of our students, we want all of them to have safe place.”