MARYSVILLE — Veronica Underwood, a first-grade teacher at Sunnyside Elementary School, recently stood in front of a room of peers, parents and the Marysville School Board to tell CJ’s story.
Two photos of CJ, a former Sunnyside student, filled monitors in the board room as she spoke. In one, he’s smiling with a wad of arcade tickets in his hands. Beside it was a photo of him holding a baby crocodile at a fair.
CJ “was very social and had many friends,” Underwood said.
Around fourth grade, she said, CJ began to notice that he was “different from the others,” but didn’t quite have words or the support to figure out what he was going through.
CJ came out as trans in sixth grade, Underwood said, and he didn’t have the emotional support he needed along the way.
She said he died by suicide.
For many LGBTQ students, affinity groups like Gay Straight Alliance or Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) clubs are a refuge.
“I’ve been called slurs in the hall,” Lake Stevens High School senior Blue Evans said. “Kids are cruel. They’ve always been cruel.”
In Snohomish, Glacier Peak High School’s first Black openly trans homecoming queen had transphobic comments hurled her way both in school and on social media.
Teachers and counselors have been trying to launch a club for LGBTQ students and students of LGBTQ families at several Marysville elementary schools this year. It’s intended to be a supportive space for students to hang out once a week before school.
“These students need our support,” Underwood said. “They need somewhere to go. They need someone to talk to and that’s what this club is about.”
But some parents and board members have expressed concern about policies they say limit parental oversight and that elementary-age children are too young to be discussing sexuality.
Clubs for LGBTQ students at public schools have existed across the country for decades.
The goal is to “create a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all students,” said Jayme Taylor, Lake Stevens School District spokesperson.
“Before I knew that other people felt like this … I felt like I was very wrong … like a freak or a weirdo,” said Fern Calderwood, Everett High School GSA secretary. “But when I came here, the GSA and the people were like, no, this is normal. You’re valid. And that like made it a lot easier for me to come to terms with my sexuality without feeling wrong.”
Calderwood and Esme Ross said their GSA has helped make Everett High School more welcoming as a whole.
But if the club wasn’t there, “I wouldn’t be able to walk with my head up,” Ross said.
Doug Standish, a YMCA teen development director in Stanwood, saw that was missing in Stanwood-Camano schools and last summer he created PRISM, a club for LGBTQ teens to connect weekly.
“They want to be that person for somebody else that provides that space, that changes the trajectory of where that person was,” Standish said. “I can see how empowered and strong and knowledgeable and just awesome these youth are. And I’ve been able to see them grow into that more and more.”
In just the first few meetings, students determined their mission would be to promote tolerance and acceptance in their school community.
“When you don’t feel safe … you can’t be yourself in your work,” Evans said. “You can’t be yourself in your learning. Like you almost feel like you’re faking everything you are. It takes the creativeness away from you.”
Providing safe spaces for LGBTQ students is not just a desire of some school leaders. It’s the law.
Washington schools were required to align their standards to a Gender-Inclusive Schools model policy by Jan. 31, 2020.
The policy outlines a pledge to educate district staff to “respond to harassment and discrimination,” and to allow students to use their preferred pronouns and the restroom corresponding to their gender identity. It asks districts to update students’ electronic records to reflect preferred names and pronouns.
And districts are to designate one person to be the primary contact for the policy and participate in at least one training and, “when possible, the District will conduct staff training and ongoing professional development in an effort to build the skills of all staff members.”
In practice, the policy allows students to change their name or gender in electronic record systems without parental permission.
A student’s counselor may advise teachers to refer to a student by “they/them” pronouns in school but use the pronouns that correspond with their gender at birth when contacting home. That’s because students may not feel comfortable coming out to their families.
Not everyone supports the policy.
“To us, this seems like insanity,” one parent wrote to The Daily Herald.
“There’s this whole movement across the United States — there’s this idea that schools are trying to take initiative and responsibility away from parents as far as the involvement in our kids,” Marysville School Board member Connor Krebbs said during a discussion about an LGBTQ affinity group. “And this group, this club that was created … fuels that kind of flame.”
Meanwhile, in Florida, the House of Representatives on Thursday passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill — banning instruction about sexuality or gender from kindergarten to third grade, and guaranteeing parents access to their kids’ education and health records. Some Marysville residents touted the bill as a positive move in online community forums.
While parents may feel frustrated or left out, state laws are in place to protect students, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
A 2018 national survey by the Human Rights Campaign revealed that many LGBTQ students were afraid to express their identities at school. Respondents said without affirmative support from school staff, they were afraid to be outed to their families or communities.
“We have this policy that supports students. What we don’t have is a way to protect you at home if it doesn’t go over well,” counselor Angela Riebli told Lake Stevens High School’s student newspaper. “Unfortunately, that means some students may choose to not take advantage of the independence that they have with this new policy because it’s just going to cause too many troubles at home.”
Public discussion surrounding the creation of a Marysville club for LGBTQ youth has been “very toxic and hurtful and shaming to children,” said Marysville School Board President Paul Galovin.
Suicide rates decrease for LGBTQ youth in communities that were more accepting, according to a research brief published by nonprofit The Trevor Project in late 2021. But without places where students can embrace their identities, they may have no choice but to bottle it up.
“That could quite honestly have an impact on mental health and could lead to suicide, as history shows,” Calderwood said. “And so I feel like it’s very, very important for school, especially, to be like a place where you can openly be yourself.”