LHS transgender students face backlash after protest, say ‘this isn’t the end’ for their advocacy

Lawrence High School students crowd the LHS rotunda on the morning of Sept. 18 in support of transgender rights and against what some described as a pervasive culture of transphobic behavior at the school. The school's administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment from a Journal-World reporter and would not allow the reporter into the rotunda where the protest was occurring. This photo was shared with the Journal-World by a student.

One day after student protests over transgender rights brought national media attention to Lawrence High, organizers behind the sit-in say conditions at the school remain hostile for some LGBT students.

Elliot Bradley, an LHS sophomore who helped organize the protest, was optimistic going to school Tuesday. The day before, he and more than 70 classmates staged a peaceful protest in the school’s rotunda that lasted about five hours before administrators assured the group that “action would be taken” to make sure transgender students felt safe at school.

What Bradley didn’t expect, he told the Journal-World Tuesday afternoon, was the backlash that followed. He said slurs were thrown at him walking down the hallway, where he said students feigned “accidentally” shoving him. In short, “it was not OK,” Bradley said.

“Our motto for the day is that we travel in packs. That’s what we’re going with,” Bradley said of his fellow protesters. “We’re not leaving each other alone, we don’t go to the bathroom alone and we don’t leave the bathroom alone.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” he added. “But we’re managing.”

LHS debuts new ‘gender-neutral’ homecoming policy

What prompted last week’s mass GroupMe conversation hasn’t been clear thus far, though LHS teacher Lindsay Buck speculated it may have been partly inspired by backlash over the school’s new “gender-neutral” homecoming policy.

Earlier this month, the LHS student council voted to eliminate the gender-specific homecoming “king” and “queen” titles, instead opting for a more inclusive “homecoming royalty” court. Previously, the gender-specific titles left out those who don’t conform to traditional gender identities.

The top two votegetters will still receive crowns and capes, according to LHS student newspaper The Budget, but won’t take home the title of homecoming king or queen.

LHS’ homecoming football game is scheduled for Sept. 29, and the school’s homecoming dance is scheduled for Sept. 30.

Monday’s protest was mainly prompted by derogatory remarks made in a group text conversation last Wednesday, following what protesters described as a long-standing and pervasive culture of discrimination at the school. More than 200 LHS seniors, including some football players, were looped into the GroupMe discussion, which occurred after school hours and was not school-sanctioned.

Some comments in the conversation likened transgender identities to mental disorders. One student asked, “if a (slur for transgender person) hits you is it still hitting a woman or no?” Another insisted that the name on a person’s birth certificate determines gender once and for all.

Bradley, along with fellow LHS Total Equality Alliance leaders Etana Parks and Jonavan Shepard, said they organized Monday’s protest in response to what they saw as an inadequate reaction from school administration regarding the incident.

Protesters argued Monday that the athletes’ actions violated not only the LHS school-wide anti-discrimination policy but also the school’s “Philosophy for the Student Athlete,” which states that “all actions on and off the field” serve as a direct reflection of the entire school community.

Several students reported the GroupMe conversation to administrators Friday morning, but were repeatedly told that nothing could be done because the situation occurred after school hours, Shepard said.

“Counselors knew about it, administrators knew about it and there were teachers running around the school the whole day trying to protect trans students,” said Shepard, who is transgender. “It’s just that it wasn’t happening quickly enough.”

Things snowballed after football players involved in the incident were still allowed to play in Friday night’s game against Lee’s Summit West, Bradley said.

As part of their protest, students submitted a list of demands to LHS administration, making it clear that they would not leave the rotunda until at least some demands were met.

Among other things, the list calls for those “who participated in harassing transgender students” to be held accountable, including the suspension of student athletes due to “unsportsmanlike conduct.” Protesters asked that those who were harassed receive a written apology from the students involved, also requesting “public recognition that the main group responsible” were 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.”

Finding a ‘safe space’ in the chaos

By the end of the school day Monday, Bradley said, administrators agreed that those who made offensive comments in the GroupMe chat would be punished. District policy forbids staff from discussing individual disciplinary measures publicly, however. There was also some talk about partnering with the school’s peer-mentoring LINK Crew to offer educational programs around discrimination, Bradley said, but nothing has been finalized yet.

Fortunately, Bradley said, one of the few actions immediately taken by LHS administration was to offer a “safe space” for students in the wake of Monday’s protests. He and several others had stayed in the school’s library classroom Tuesday, skipping classes but working on assignments independently while waiting for backlash to die down.

“We’ve been told that action isn’t going to be immediate, which we’re all coming to terms with,” Bradley said of the school’s response. “I don’t know how long they expect us to deal with this. We have a group of students who are hiding from the rest of the student body because they don’t feel safe.”

For Bradley, that backlash began Monday night. Widespread harassment over social media, he said, was swift. While he was heartened to see online posters share messages of support, he also saw comments (on the Journal-World’s original story) that he describes as “just hateful.”

“That’s something we took in stride,” Bradley said. “There is a part of you that asks yourself, ‘Have I done something wrong? Have I made a mistake? Have we (inadvertently) hurt someone in the process?’ And the answer is no.”

Lindsay Buck, who chairs the LHS special education department, said she’s proud of the student protesters. Despite her longtime post as sponsor of the Total Equality Alliance, Buck, who was appointed to the National Education Association’s 2017-18 Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee earlier this fall, said she didn’t help the students organize the protest. She said she only became aware of it Monday morning, and it was “completely student-organized and student-led.”

Students researched extensively beforehand what was allowed — students can protest on school grounds as long as their activities don’t “substantially disrupt” the school day — and continued talks with administration throughout the day, Buck said, even getting some homework done while stationed in the rotunda.

“It just speaks to the students’ leadership skills,” Buck said. “It was pretty powerful to see that many students come together in solidarity in support of trans and non-binary students, knowing they organized this all on their own.”

And LHS administration, she said, is in the process of developing a plan to address LGBT issues not just school-wide but district-wide. Buck said on Tuesday that administrators had already reached out to her and another staff member about possible support and education programs at the school.

Buck is a member of the District Equity Advisory Council and said that committee also plans to reach out to administrators.

“By and large,” she said, Lawrence High has “lots of teachers” willing to support and protect transgender youths. Last week’s GroupMe incident, however, illustrated that perhaps “we’re not doing enough as a school,” Buck said.

“We definitely are moving in a positive direction, but in terms of student safety and mental health and well-being, that needs to be paramount for us as educators,” she said, adding, “When we hear bullying in our classroom or otherwise, we need to speak up and stand up for these kids. That is our job.”

‘This isn’t the end’

Transgender students will continue “standing up,” too, Shepard said. He and Parks, whose worries about presenting as female for the first time were documented in a 2016 Journal-World story about transgender teens, have a “history” of it, Shepard said.

Administrators know “this isn’t the end,” he said of Monday’s protest.

“And if they ignore what we have expressed our concerns about, they know we’re going to do it again, whether in a sit-in or a forum,” Shepard said. “But they know they can’t ignore it.”

LHS administration, as well as district spokeswoman Julie Boyle, did not immediately respond to the Journal-World’s information requests Tuesday.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Lindsay Buck’s role on the the District Equity Advisory Council. She is a committee member.