LHS football coach addresses transgender rights protest, aftermath in letter to school

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.

It appeared quietly last week on The Budget’s website — a letter, first sent out to Lawrence High School faculty and later published in the school’s student newspaper, written by LHS football coach Dirk Wedd.

He had agreed to share the letter in The Budget’s online edition, the newspaper said, “as an address to all members of the ‘Lion Family'” in the wake of student protests stemming from offensive text messages allegedly sent by some of his football players. The derogatory remarks about transgender people were shared in a GroupMe conversation that included more than 200 LHS seniors.

“For the past 28 years I have had the honor and privilege to work at the greatest high school in the state. Along with that, came the opportunity to work with the best faculty and the most amazing kids,” Wedd began his letter. “The past few days have been some of the toughest in my life for me and my family. I have been painted in a very negative light and would like the opportunity to set the record straight.”

In his letter, Wedd describes his involvement in the events that led up to the Sept. 18 protest at Lawrence High, where more than 100 students eventually joined the sit-in over what they deemed an inadequate response to the provocative text conversation.

Protesters argued that football players had violated the district’s anti-discriminatory policies, as well as Lawrence High’s “Philosophy for the Student Athlete,” in the senior chat. Some of the more antagonistic messages equated transgenderism with mental illness, insisted that gender can only be determined by the name on someone’s birth certificate and asked the question, “if a (slur for transgender person) hits you is it still hitting a woman or no?”

Elliot Bradley, one of the leaders behind the protest, said students shared around 30 screenshots of the conversation with administrators on Wednesday, Sept. 13, two days before Lawrence High’s football game against Lee’s Summit West.

Wedd said in his letter that he met with an administrator and the school’s athletic director that Friday, Sept. 15, “to discuss two football players and their Snapchat accounts,” mistakenly referring to the GroupMe conversation.

“Although neither players’ Snapchats were shown to me, both administrators told me there was nothing on either account that warranted any discipline. They did, however, ask me to visit with the two players and tell them to be careful about what they put on social media,” Wedd said, adding that he talked with both players before the game Friday.

The following Saturday, Wedd said he met “on my own accord” with the entire football team, reminding his players “about being a family” and reinforcing “how families sometimes disagree but should always respect and love one another.” He also stressed the importance of “mak(ing) the right choices.”

Jonavan Shepard, one of three organizers behind the protests, later told the Journal-World that he believed Wedd had good intentions in addressing the situation with his players. But he’s still frustrated with the longtime coach, whom he describes as having “a history of problematic behavior.”

“I am upset with him, and I think many other trans and nonbinary kids are,” said Shepard, who is transgender. “We did specifically tell him that his impact was way different than his intent. And his intent may have been good, but that’s not what came of it.”

The athletes involved in the GroupMe chat were still allowed to play in that week’s football game. Bradley, one of about a dozen transgender students at the school, said the lack of discipline (officials later said students who had violated school policies in the text conversation would be “held accountable” for their actions) essentially gave students “open rein to just torment us.”

Wedd wrote in his letter that he met with protest leaders during the sit-in after being asked to do so by interim Superintendent Anna Stubblefield and LHS Principal Matt Brungardt. He agreed to meet with the students after first speaking with his wife and lawyer, he said.

Wedd’s letter didn’t explain why he decided to involve his attorney. He also declined to answer questions about the incident, telling the Journal-World in an email that he had been instructed to forward all questions to the district.

In his letter, Wedd said he hoped his meeting with student protesters “did some good.” Shepard, Bradley and fellow organizer Etana Parks confirmed that the meeting had taken place, but also said they felt disappointed in the outcome. Among the demands discussed was an apology, from Wedd and his players.

It didn’t happen, Bradley said, and two weeks later, it still hasn’t happened. But Bradley said he also “sympathizes” somewhat with Wedd, who said he’d received “hateful emails, phone calls and even an anonymous letter left on my porch” in the aftermath of the protests.

“What hurts the most, though, is teachers that I have taught with for 10, 15, 20 years, now won’t say hi or good morning,” Wedd wrote. “I’m not telling you this for sympathy but because you are my friends.”

Shepard said he didn’t feel very sympathetic toward the coach on Thursday, however, when the Journal-World interviewed him and other protesters. Parks agreed, arguing that Wedd had tried to make himself into the victim.

“He said he’s had a terrible week, but trans kids have had a terrible year,” Shepard said. “Not just this year, but in previous years, and it’s still going on.”

Wedd “definitely did not get the whole picture,” Shepard added.

Since then, he said, the response from administrators has been “really minimal.” Though school board policy forbids faculty from publicly sharing disciplinary actions, Shepard said it was his understanding that athletes involved in the GroupMe chat have not been benched from any games. He doesn’t expect that to change in the coming week.

“I supposed the worst they got might have been a stern lecture or a detention, which we don’t find suitable by any means,” agreed Parks, who is transgender.

“I can also see why they were hesitant, too, because the people we targeted were the star players of the team,” she added. “At this point it seems like they’re putting the football team, winning trophies, the athletics, above trans students and actually levying punishment.”

And because of that, Parks said, administrators are inadvertently creating “a much more hostile environment for trans kids.”

Bradley, who said he suffers from PTSD, anxiety and a panic disorder, spent the entire week of the protest in the “safe space” school staff had established for students in the aftermath. He didn’t return to his regular classes — opting instead to work on assignments independently — until the following Monday.

He’d been shoved into a locker, he said, and verbally attacked with transphobic slurs in the halls. He said one student had spat directly at another student’s face, and his peers Parks and Shepard said similar incidents had been reported after the protests.

In a way, Bradley understands why some students allegedly reacted with hostility, he said. He also understands partly why Wedd felt victimized afterward. Being “confronted by 150-plus angry students” would have scared Bradley, too, he said.

He still wants an apology from Wedd and his players, but knows “we all deal with fear in different ways.”

“We’re teenagers, and yeah, we make mistakes, and we don’t know exactly how to go from here. But people do strange things when they’re scared,” Bradley said.

“That’s a really important thing to remember through all this,” he added. “Whether the way we went about it was right or wrong, we were scared, and we did what we thought was right.”

District spokeswoman Julie Boyle declined to answer specific questions about the contents of Wedd’s letter, aside from acknowledging that Wedd likely confused Snapchat with GroupMe.

She did offer a statement on behalf of the district, however, explaining that “while we do not discuss student discipline publicly that does not mean that nothing is being done.”

“Lawrence High and the district as whole share the same goal as the students who raised these concerns,” Boyle said in an email. “We are all committed to ensuring safe learning environments for all students.”