With nearly 40,000 students, Nebraska’s Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) was roiled by recent controversy over gender-inclusiveness training for the staff in the school district - surfacing at one middle school. Despite complaints from some in the community who oppose such training, the district superintendent and Board of Education defended the initiative and continue to affirm the training. Eventually, the superintendent pulled a single handout that he said did not have enough clarity to serve as appropriate training materials, but pledged to uphold the school district's commitment and pledge to make sure all LPS classrooms are inclusive and welcoming.
Irving Middle School provided the training session where the controversy surfaced, where a handout was distributed from the national organization Gender Spectrum, to help teachers and other staff understand gender identity issues in greater depth. Irving Principal Susette Taylor said she organized the session for her own school after participating in one for district administrators, believing the message was important for her staff - and that she found the speakers and materials effective at making connections between student academic success and school environments that support gender identity diversity.
During the ‘administrative leadership’ days to which Taylor referred, school administrators received updates and refresher training prior to the first day of classes; LPS provided several resources about gender identity, including a local news profile of a transgender person, a Time magazine cover story on gender identity, and a story from CBS morning news.
The Gender Spectrum handouts, provided by a staff member on a district equity team, were intended only for school personnel, not for students or parents.
This perceived exclusion of parents led one parent, Rachel Terry, to begin organizing opponents of such training. Terry e-mailed like-minded opponents a speech she intended to make at the October school board meeting. In her draft speech, Terry charged LPS with breaching community trust by using taxpayer dollars to promote “the deconstruction of fundamental family and religious values…By sidelining academic teacher training and replacing it with social re-engineering, the LPS administration has placed a higher priority on social reformation than on education,” she asserted.
Terry also distributed samples of the offending trainer handouts, including Gender Spectrum’s tip sheet titled "12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness.” The tip sheet encouraged school personnel to avoid, where possible, using gendered expressions such as “boys and girls” when alternatives could be used, such as “calling all readers” or “hey, campers.”
With Terry leading the charge, local and national conservative news media quickly moved to distort the story and allege that politically correct school administrators were officially forbidding references to traditional gender, and possibly doing away with gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms. According to the national progressive news magazine The Advocate, “When Fox News contributors Alan Colmes and Tony Sayegh appeared on Gretchen Carlson's The Real Story last Thursday, the pundits claimed that the school district had ‘banned’ gendered language altogether.”
LPS Superintendent Steve Joel said that national news and social media outlets were misrepresenting the district’s policies and procedures on gender inclusiveness. "Never once has anyone inside our system mandated that a teacher take [the words] 'boys' and 'girls' or 'ladies' and 'gentlemen' out of their interactions with children or interaction with adults," Joel said at a press conference, noting that LPS has had to divert staff time and district resources to debunking false reports. "There's no policy, there's no procedure, there's no changes being made to bathrooms in schools."
Predictably, several dozen people addressed the LPS Board about gender identity and staff training during the public comment period that preceded the Board’s regular October meeting.
Parent John Cosby argued that the school board had withheld information from parents about Irving’s professional development activities: “LPS policy is to foster and facilitate parental information on the education of children,” he said. “However, LPS has made it abundantly clear that the LPS training materials on gender were not meant for parents.”
Irving teacher Julie Hunter countered that the training had been valuable for its intended recipients: “Teachers have to have this stuff on their radar, not because we’re going to change society and we have this agenda, [but] because society is changing before our eyes,” she explained.
In contrast, parent Courtney Criswell expressed opposition to such training. “This is not the new normal,” Criswell said. “We’ve been told that the school board will not be held hostage by those of us with different opinions. That’s not reflective of the inclusive culture that LPS wants to provide; quite the opposite. It is the parents who are being held hostage here.”
Student Services Director Russ Uhing defended the training and resources, pointing out that transgender students are at higher risk than their peers for mental and physical health concerns, including suicidal thoughts. “Our purpose is to educate all kids," he said. "We do not push a political agenda, we don’t push a religious preference on people, or a sexual preference on people. That’s not what our role is.” He added, “We’ve got a lot of different types of students in our district, and this is a group that we are seeing more of, and our buildings are asking for more guidance, so that’s what we wanted to present.”
“The agenda we’re promoting is to help all kids succeed,” said Brenda Leggiardo, LPS coordinator of social workers and counselors. "We have kids who come to us with a whole variety of circumstances, and we need to equitably serve all kids.”
Leggiardo pointed out that not all families with transgender children are confident that schools will understand and welcome those students; a well-trained school professional could assist families to become more confident in working with the school to ensure a student’s success. “If there’s a staff member that’s uninformed and unsupportive, that can be pretty scary for a family maybe struggling to understand transgender issues themselves,” she said.
Despite the opposition’s demand that LPS not acknowledge or affirm its gender-variant students, Superintendent Joel responded with pride in LPS teachers and administrators for being receptive to professional development on inclusiveness around gender identity. “We’re doing the right thing,” he countered.
As developments continued, additional opponents attended a subsequent Board meeting where 16 residents spoke at the podium during that later meeting, uniformly denouncing the district’s teacher training activities. Joel determined to pull the handout, "12 Easy Steps on the Way to Gender Inclusiveness,” because he said it was not "purposeful and clear" enough to stand alone.
Sondra Moghadam, a parent of children in a district elementary school, expressed disapproval that at least one teacher had placed stickers from the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) on a window, and that books on gender identity were being read by some students. “Will our elementary schools turn into a propaganda playground?” she asked.
Another participant in the meeting, Nancy Carr, demanded more than the just the removal of teacher training materials: “I do feel that Dr. Joel owes us an apology for the way he’s handled this matter.”
Joel pledged to move ahead in reviewing and selecting staff development materials, "making sure they are appropriate, and that we are compliant with state and federal obligations. He stated: "We are under a legal obligation to provide information to educators about transgender students. We’re not going to back away from that. We can’t back away from making sure our teachers and educators gain a beneficial understanding about all students...Our educators are doing things for the right reasons and they should be applauded for that...I want them to hear my words...We have to continue the work."
 Margaret Reist, “LPS staff's transgender training concerns parents,” Lincoln Journal Star, October 1, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014 at http://journalstar.com/news/local/education/lps-staff-s-transgender-training-concerns-parents/article_0b37dd75-758d-50c1-9deb-16901059bc5a.html.
 Mitch Kellaway, “Right Wing Fails to Stop Gender-Inclusive Training in Neb. Schools,” The Advocate, October 14, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014 at http://www.advocate.com/education/2014/10/14/right-wing-fails-stop-gender-inclusive-training-neb-schools.
 Brent Martin, “’Boy and girl’ controversy goes local in comments to Lincoln School Board,” Nebraska Radio Network, October 15, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014 at http://nebraskaradionetwork.com/2014/10/15/boy-and-girl-controversy-goes-local-in-comments-to-lincoln-school-board/.
 Reist, “LPS staff's transgender training…”
 Joe Dejka, “Lincoln schools chief: District not replacing terms 'boys, girls' with gender-neutral ones,” Omaha.com, October 9, 2014, accessed October 23, 2014 at http://www.omaha.com/news/nebraska/lincoln-schools-chief-district-not-replacing-terms-boys-girls-with/article_4c0c45c2-500a-11e4-be49-0017a43b2370.html.
 Reist, “LPS staff's transgender training…”
 Dejka, “Lincoln schools chief: District not replacing terms…”
 Margaret Reist, “LPS removes controversial gender identity materials,” Lincoln Journal Star, October 29, 2014, accessed November 5, 2014 at http://m.journalstar.com/news/local/education/lps-removes-controversial-gender-identity-materials/article_4dfa8667-b4f0-5890-93f4-cfd5461778c9.html?mobile_touch=true.