Students who violated LHS policies in derogatory messages will be ‘held accountable’ — how, exactly, remains unclear

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.

Lawrence High School students who violated school policy in the GroupMe conversation that triggered Monday’s protest at LHS will face disciplinary action, school and district officials said Wednesday.

But whether that means detention, suspension or a stern lecture won’t be made public. Doing so, interim Superintendent Anna Stubblefield said, would violate school board policy.

“Certain comments and things that were mentioned have been addressed by administration,” Stubblefield told the Journal-World. “But we’re not going to comment on which comments (specifically), because that isolates which student it was.”

However, she added, the public should know that the students who made the derogatory comments — including one that equated transgenderism with mental illness — in last week’s senior chat will be “held accountable.”

The comments in question came from a group text conversation that began Wednesday and included more than 200 LHS seniors. It started out innocently enough, Stubblefield said, with students discussing outfits for that week’s football game against Lee’s Summit West. The conversation then devolved into the provocative comments — by some — that student protesters argued violated school policies around bullying and harassment.

On Wednesday, Stubblefield acknowledged that certain portions of the GroupMe chat did violate the district’s policies.

“There were things in (the chat) that were out of bounds and not OK, and they impacted the school day,” Stubblefield said. “When things occur outside of the school day, we typically are able to intervene and address it when it has an impact on what’s happening in the school day, and obviously we did that.”

LHS Principal Matt Brungardt also said that staff had talked with students involved and will continue what he feels have been constructive conversations in the days ahead.

Some of the anecdotes — from LGBT students describing alleged transphobic bullying and harassment at the school — that have emerged over the last week, Brungardt said, hadn’t been reported until now. That’s something he’d like to change.

“If something happens, make sure you tell us. Don’t assume people know, don’t assume we know,” Brungardt said. “And we told staff, ‘If you see something in your classroom and you think it’s off, just go ahead and let us know.”

“I feel like we can do a pretty good job of policing what we know,” he added. “If something happens and we don’t know about it, it’s pretty hard to do anything with it.”

The school is equipped with social workers, counselors and plenty of supportive teachers for vulnerable students to turn to, Brungardt said, though he acknowledges there’s work to be done in publicizing those resources.

There’s also a form on the school’s website — and the websites of schools across the district — for students to report incidents anonymously, Stubblefield said. She and other district leaders are hoping last week’s senior chat and the ensuing protest might provide insight into why such incidents aren’t always reported.

Stubblefield also said there are plans to strengthen partnerships with parents regarding digital citizenship, encouraging moms and dads to discuss navigating the internet safely and with courtesy toward others.

“In today’s world, our schools are just a reflection of what is happening in our society, and we’re navigating through this with teenagers and young adults,” Stubblefield said. “That’s a different component because, while at the same time we’re trying to hold students accountable, this is a learning opportunity for them as well.

“And it’s an opportunity for them to learn from one another and to recognize that we all have different viewpoints and different perspectives,” she added. “But that doesn’t give you a right to be rude or inappropriate or disrespectful to anyone.”