When a handful of student protesters — which later grew to a crowd of more than 100 — came together Sept. 18 in response to alleged transphobic bullying and harassment at their school, they were told that change would come. Not overnight, and probably not within the next week, but eventually.
More than two months after the Lawrence High School sit-in and the national media attention that followed, school leaders say they’re optimistic about the progress that’s already been made.
“Through the meetings that we had with students that day, we identified three key areas that we really needed to do a better job in,” said Assistant Principal Mark Preut.
Over the last several weeks, administrators have been working toward establishing better communication, education and support in response to what protesters described as a pervasive culture of transphobic behavior at their school.
Protesters felt their concerns had been virtually ignored after a handful of students, including a few football players, allegedly went unpunished after making offensive comments in a group text conversation that included more than 200 LHS seniors.
School and district administrators later acknowledged that some students had violated LHS anti-bullying and harassment policies, but wouldn’t discuss disciplinary actions publicly because of the school board policy that disallows it.
“Really, what sparked the sit-in was that they felt that they had not been heard or listened to, and so we wanted to make sure we have good venues in communication when things arise,” Preut said.
In the days following the sit-in, student protesters met with the District Equity Advisory Council to address their concerns and list of demands. One of these demands called for the creation of a student-led panel meant specifically to address bullying, harassment and other issues facing LGBTQ students.
After a preliminary talk earlier this fall, the group — comprising representatives from student organizations such as the Total Equality Alliance, the Intertribal Club, Black Student Association and the student council — will host their first official meeting later this month.
Preut said he envisions the panel meeting on a monthly basis and proactively developing solutions to the kinds of “broader, systemic issues” that led to September’s protest in the first place.
“Many of the messages that were put out there struck me as people speaking because they didn’t understand,” Preut said. “ … They were speaking from a place of not really knowing what the issues are, what the struggles are, of not understanding.”
He feels the sit-in provided an opportunity for transgender students to share their experiences and lend insight into why seemingly “frivolous comments” made at someone else’s expense can be hurtful and damaging.
For years, the school’s Total Equality Alliance has been working to educate students about the realities faced by those in the LGBTQ community. “They didn’t begin to exist with the sit-in,” Preut points out.
Even before September’s protest, TEA club members were among those who lobbied for gender-neutral restrooms and homecoming royalty titles, both of which were implemented over the last year.
For the international Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, TEA club installed a display honoring the 25 Americans who lost their lives in 2017 because of anti-transgender violence. And students — plus a good number of faculty, too — seem to be paying attention to these recent efforts, says TEA club sponsor Lindsay Buck.
“I think the students are definitely doing what they want to do in continuing to spread awareness and educating their peers,” Buck said. “But it’s also not their job to do that. We don’t want to put the onus on them to educate others.”
To that end, administrators are working with the University of Kansas to bring KU’s Safe Zone training to school staff, and eventually, into classrooms with the students. They’re also hoping to better publicize existing support services, including the school’s in-house social workers and counselors, as well introducing new resources.
Jose Cornejo, the district’s mental health facilitator, has been in talks with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center about bringing in a transgender therapist to work with students, Preut said.
“We know that kids that are feeling traumatized or unsafe, it’s very difficult to connect those students to learning because they’re in crisis mode,” Preut said. “… You don’t learn if you don’t take a chance of being wrong. And if you feel like you’re not safe, you’re not going to take those risks.”
It’s a concept that doesn’t just apply to transgender kids, he added. “It’s about affirming each student in the building and making sure that our most vulnerable population is supported,” Preut said.
As sponsor of her school’s TEA club and as a member of the District Equity Advisory Council, Buck has paid close attention to the media coverage surrounding the sit-in. The Journal-World’s original story ultimately led to articles in the Washington Post, USA Today and Teen Vogue, among other outlets.
“As hard as I think it was for a lot of the kids, just the publicity and the emotional labor that a lot of them experienced through that process — that’s a lot for anyone to handle. And these kids are teens,” Buck said. But, she added, “I think they can also see some fruits of their labor.”
Since the protest, Buck said she’d received countless positive messages, some from complete strangers. Baldwin High’s Gay-Straight Alliance sent the TEA club a “thank you” letter, as did one anonymous, closeted transgender student at Lawrence High.
LHS sophomore Elliot Bradley, one of the organizers behind the protest, said the publicity generated, including coverage in his school newspaper, helped bring attention to an issue that had long been ignored.
“This wasn’t an isolated school event. This was something that was in the news and the media and the talk around town,” Bradley said. “And this was something Free State (High School) kids took really seriously as well, or they felt this was really awesome of us and, ‘Wow, you were those kids?’”
A natural optimist, Bradley said he’s encouraged by the change he has already seen following the protest. He knows other TEA club members might not share his sunny outlook, but Bradley does know the protest “struck a nerve,” hitting home for some and creating fear in others.
And ultimately, he added, most of his classmates — even those who may have made hurtful, flippant comments before — seem to “get it” now. It’s the grownups who have been much slower to learn, Bradley said.
“I think that these adults needed to hear this,” Bradley said of the protest’s message.
He does wish change was happening at a faster pace, but he also feels encouraged that it’s happening at all.
“What they told us through the sit-in was, ‘It’s not going to happen tomorrow and it probably won’t happen in the next two weeks, but it will happen,’” Bradley said. “And it’s being brought up in board meetings, it’s being brought up in offices, and people are talking about it.”
“It’s not a silent issue anymore,” he said. “And I think that is something that matters a lot.”