A group of students skipped classes and staged a sit-in at Lawrence High Monday to protest what they describe as a pervasive culture of discrimination against LGBT students, particularly transgender individuals, at their school.
The sit-in started with about 45 students on Monday morning but had grown to an estimated 70 protesters as of lunchtime as students began to join the event in the school’s rotunda. An organizer of the event said students talked with LHS Assistant Principal Mark Pruet and notified the administration that they did not intend to leave the rotunda until at least some of their demands had been met.
“We talked to Mr. Pruet for probably about five minutes, and then we, as a group, sat down in solidarity and said, ‘We are not going to move until action is taken,’” said Elliot Bradley, an LHS sophomore who is a main organizer behind the protest. “And that’s what we intend to do.”
District spokeswoman Julie Boyle later told the Journal-World that protesters had disbanded by the end of the school day, but she did not say if a consensus had been reached between students and administrators.
Bradley said he and fellow members of the school’s Total Equality Alliance organized the protest. He said the sit-in was spurred by long-standing issues at LHS that recently came to a head after several students, some of them LHS football players, made offensive comments in a group text conversation (via the app GroupMe) last week.
More than 200 students were looped into the text conversation, Bradley said, which included comments likening transgender identities to mental disorders, among other things. In the conversation, one student asked, “if a (slur for transgender person) hits you is it still hitting a woman or no?” Another person insisted that the name on a person’s birth certificate determines gender once and for all, regardless of the person’s actual gender identity.
Bradley said the text messages were sent out initially on Wednesday. On Friday, he said, the football players involved in the conversation were still allowed to play in that evening’s game against Lee’s Summit West. To him, the incident sends a message that “LHS is valuing their players over their minority students.”
“It wasn’t really a shock to us, but it was alarming,” Bradley, who serves as events coordinator of his school’s TEA club, said of the messages. “It was really difficult for us to handle, knowing that these are people who represent our school.”
The lack of response Bradley said he saw from LHS staff motivated the Total Equality Alliance to stage a walk-out after first period Monday morning, he said. About 45 students met Monday outside the school’s front entrance, proceeding around 10 a.m. to the main office.
There, Bradley said, students met Assistant Principal Pruet.
In a list of demands submitted to LHS administration, protesters called for those “who participated in harassing transgender students” to be held accountable, including the suspension of student athletes due to “unsportsmanlike conduct.”
Bradley pointed to the school’s “Philosophy for the Student Athlete,” which states that participation in school sports is a “privilege, not a right,” and reminds student athletes that “they represent not only the team,” but also parents, coaches, administration and the entire LHS student body, as well as the district and Lawrence community as a whole.
“With that in mind, the student-athlete must realize all actions on and off the field is a direct reflection of the entire school community,” the philosophy says. “You will be looked upon as a role model.”
The protesters’ list of demands also asks that these students write an apology to those who were harassed, and also asks for “public recognition that the main group responsible” were student athletes.
Aside from disciplinary matters, the demands also call for new administration at the school dedicated to handling discrimination issues, as well as a new panel comprising five teachers and two students to serve as “decision-makers on punishments for any future incidents of discrimination and as support for all students.”
Bradley told the Journal-World he didn’t expect all these demands to be met. He and other LGBT students, he said, just wanted to feel their concerns were being adequately heard.
Raven Andersen-Rolland, an LHS senior who joined the protests Monday, said the issues being discussed weren’t new to her school. Last year, she alleged, a handful of students attacked her and her girlfriend with anti-gay slurs during an assembly. Andersen-Rolland also said the students kicked her and her girlfriend before she reported the incident to LHS administration.
“I found out later that the boys were on the baseball team and they were not given a detention,” Andersen-Rolland said. “They continued to talk about us in the halls. They weren’t suspended from any games. Nothing was taken away.”
Referring to the protesters, Bradley said he was encouraged to see the level of engagement by his peers.
With each passing period, he said, more and more kids sat down in solidarity. Bradley said the protesters had pledged not to leave until “action is taken,” adding that even if just one or two demands were met, he would be satisfied.
He said he and fellow protesters simply wanted to make Lawrence High a “safe space” for all students, current and future.
“I don’t think any freshman or (prospective students) coming into this school should be scared to come to high school,” Andersen-Rolland agreed.
Andersen-Rolland later said some of the group’s demands had been met, with the protesters disbanding around 3 p.m. Monday. She wasn’t sure which demands had specifically been met, however, and noted that the administration said some of the actions suggested by protesters could not be immediately taken.
An administrator at LHS declined to answer questions from a Journal-World reporter on Monday. The administrator also refused to allow the reporter into the rotunda area of LHS where the sit-in was taking place. The administrator referred questions to the district’s director of communications, Julie Boyle, who responded around 2:45 p.m. with a statement nearly identical to the message she sent to LHS parents a few minutes before.
“Lawrence High School’s administration has been meeting with students who staged a peaceful protest in the school rotunda today. The students’ concerns stemmed from feeling disrespected by comments other students made in an online chat room last week,” Boyle said in an email. “Lawrence High is committed to ensuring a safe and welcoming learning environment for all students and does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind. When the facts about these issues are gathered, the administration will take action as is appropriate in accordance with Board Policy and the Student Handbook.”
The message to parents did not divulge what, exactly, students were protesting or why some felt “disrespected” by the group text message that spurred the protest. Boyle also told parents that “at no time today were threats made against student safety as a result of the sit-in.”
Lawrence High students protest transgender discrimination• Monday, Sept. 18 — Discriminatory text messages spur student sit-in over LGBT rights at Lawrence High
• Tuesday, Sept. 19 — LHS transgender students face backlash after protest, say ‘this isn’t the end’ for their advocacy
• Wednesday, Sept. 20 — Students who violated LHS policies in derogatory messages will be ‘held accountable’ — how, exactly, remains unclear