Kansas school district forced to change policies after punishing lesbian student

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A 14-year-old Kansas student was punished by her school in January for saying she was a lesbian.

A Kansas public school district has agreed to reforms, including publicizing of its anti-discrimination policies and training for its staff, after a student was disciplined and told she couldn't ride a school bus for several days after she said she was a lesbian during a bus ride home.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas sent a letter to the superintendent of the North Lyon County Unified School District 251 on July 6 telling the district that the actions of school staff violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities receiving federal funds.

The civil rights organization also said that the school violated 14-year-old Izzy Dieker's rights under the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Based on an independent investigation conducted by the Kansas Association of School Boards, the ACLU letter said that several students riding a school bus were leaning in and out of the aisle and using profanities on Jan. 27.

Dieker, who was riding the bus, did none of those things, the letter notes. When she said, "I'm a lesbian," the bus driver, Kristi Gadino, pulled the bus over and reprimanded Dieker, telling her, "Watch your language." She added, "Do you think that these little kindergarteners need to know what that word means?"

After the bus ride, Gadino wrote up Dieker for disobeying the driver, using "unacceptable language," and being rude or discourteous, and Izzy's parents were told she would be temporarily suspended from riding the bus. The school principal told her and a teacher who advocated for her that despite the fact that video footage showed that Izzy had not been rude or disobedient, calling herself a lesbian was "inappropriate" and the suspension would stand.

The independent investigation, conducted after Dieker's family filed a formal Title IX complaint, found that the two school district employees had violated Title IX and school district policy and had subjected her to sexual harassment, according to the Emporia Gazette.

In its letter dated July 6, the ACLU said the school district hadn't yet met its legal obligations to "treat LGBTQI+ students with respect and dignity." It said that Dieker and her family requested the district provide training on LGBTQI+ rights before the next school year begins and that it do so every year going forward. The organization also said the school needed to reform how it goes about its Title IX investigations and ensure that there is clear guidance for students and their families for how the school will move forward with Title IX complaints.

On July 30, the Emporia Gazette reported that the school district had said it would address the issues, and the ACLU sent a letter to the district detailing its own understanding of the steps the district would be taking, including providing antidiscrimination training to all staff before the start of the next school year, broadening that training to include lessons on being "welcoming to all," including LGBTQ people, and contacting a trainer the ACLU recommended.

The district will also make sure that school anti-discrimination policies are available online and are easy to see in school buildings and provide more transparency and clarity on its Title IX complaint process.

Robert Blair, superintendent of North County Lyon Schools, confirmed with the American Independent Foundation that the district will work on those changes and that the training component is in the planning phase: "Our school district is committed to providing a learning environment free from discrimination."

"These are difficult ages, but it's often even more difficult for people in the LGBTQ community, and then to have institutions, which should be nurturing and supporting young people, to instead be the source of discrimination is obviously awful," Josh Pierson, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Kansas, told the American Independent Foundation.

"We were really encouraged that USD 251 did ultimately decide to do the right thing and took the steps that it took. And to their credit, they have taken responsibility here and are trying to make things right and ensure that doesn't happen again to other students. But obviously it's a difficult thing for a young person to go through again and especially coming from the place where they should be safest, which is school," Pierson said.

LGBTQ students in Kansas have faced unwelcoming school environments at other school districts in the state. Pierson said the organization has received a number of anti-LGBTQ discrimination complaints both inside and outside schools.

According to a 2019 school climate report from GLSEN, a group dedicated to creating more LGBTQ-inclusive and safe school environments, only 39% of LGBTQ students in Kansas said their school administration was supportive; nearly one-third of LGBTQ students said they were disciplined for public displays of affection that non-LGBTQ students were not; and 12% said they weren't allowed to wear clothing expressing support for LGBTQ people.

The Kansas Legislature passed a bill in April that would have banned trans athletes from playing on the team of their gender. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) vetoed the bill, and the Kansas state Senate was not able to override it. Kelly said the bill sent "a devastating message that Kansas is not welcoming to all children and their families, including those who are transgender — who are already at a higher risk of bullying, discrimination, and suicide." 

"The majority of the state's legislature voted to discriminate against transgender people in this state, and the message that sends to schools and students is disheartening, to say the least," the ACLU's Pierson said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.