National culture wars on race, LGBTQ+ rights come to WA schools

Sara Foppiano, a former teacher and staff member, poses for a portrait at her home in Tumwater on Sept. 15. Foppiano is one of several teachers who has been targeted by far-right conservative groups for teaching about LGBTQ issues and for her association with a BIPOC resource group (Grant Hindsley/Crosscut)

An Olympia parent group questioning a teacher about her involvement in resource groups for students of color. A measure before the Richland School Board to remove a book depicting gay parents. Kitsap County high school students wearing shirts proclaiming there are only two genders. People at Edmonds school board meetings speaking out against transgender individuals.

Washington is getting a sustained taste of the national culture wars. The pandemic era’s protests against school closures and vaccinations have given way to a push by some on the right against curricula and policies concerning LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color.

News reports from around the nation underscore the breadth and depth of this battle. A North Idaho educator honored as “teacher of the year” announced that she left the state after being harassed for supporting transgender individuals. A South Carolina teacher was reprimanded by her district for teaching about race after her students reported her. In Florida, lesbian and gay teachers have left the profession after a law made it more difficult for them to discuss their own families or LGBTQ+ issues without fear of reprisal.

With its Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor, Washington is highly unlikely to see statewide restrictions on teaching about race or gender. And efforts by citizens concerned about gender identity to put measures on a statewide ballot have been unsuccessful. That has left opponents – which include church congregations and parent groups – to push back in school board meetings and to question teachers directly.

Educators and union leaders say the division is reaching deep into the fabric of their classrooms, in some cases pitting teachers against teachers and students against students. The confrontations are contributing to educator burnout as the profession struggles with a shortage of workers, according to interviews and national studies.

The mix of volatile politics and social media spreading information – or misinformation – has upended the long tradition of parents and children actively participating in their education, according to Chris Reykdal, the state schools superintendent.

“I think the level of aggression and the ability to sort of get to a teacher is different,” Reykdal said.

With former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – who has supported restrictions on teaching in his state – and others jostling for next year’s Republican nomination for president, Reykdal and others say they don’t expect the pressure to decrease anytime soon.

Randi Weingarten, longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said she began to note the rise in aggression against educators in 2016, as Trump employed a campaign of acrimony on his ascendancy to the presidency: “We talked about the Trump effect at that point and now it’s becoming normalized.”

Weingarten, who is lesbian and described being in the closet in the 1970s, said “This time is worse than then.”

“I have seen a wholesale attack by a small group of extremists against the LGBTQ community and more broadly against any people that are viewed as different or other,” she added. “It’s a racial attack and it’s a gender attack.”

From left, Jim Tracy, Anthony Shapiro, Siri Shapiro and Cindy Whitehead listen during an Edmonds School Board meeting in Lynnwood on Aug. 29. During public comments at a previous meeting, Shapiro had asked, “Why does this board embrace, teach and promote grooming and the normalization of transgenderism to our young pupils, whose minds have barely begun to develop?”, and also quoted the Bible. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

‘It’s been frustrating’

In June – Pride Month – students showed up at Klahowya Secondary School in Silverdale, Kitsap County, wearing shirts that read “There are only two genders,” sparking complaints and an independent review by the school district. The review found the shirts didn’t “represent a substantial disruption to the educational process according to the legal definition.”

Complaints came both from students who identified with the LGBTQ+ community, according to a statement from the Central Kitsap School District, as well as from students who wore the T-shirts.

“Moving forward, we will continue to uphold our students’ constitutional rights while also ensuring safe, secure, and welcoming learning environments for all students,” according to the statement. “If an incident occurs where an expression of free speech has a negative impact on others, we will take action. Discrimination, harassment, intimidation, or bullying in any form will not be tolerated.”

In mid-July, the Edmonds School District Board met for its regular meeting for a round of mostly mundane business, and to receive comments from the public – a mainstay of local government gatherings. But like many meetings in recent years, the gaggle of residents who stood to speak weren’t all there to chime in on the superintendent’s report or the state of the school district budget.

Instead, a citizen walked to the podium and began inquiring about the schools giving out gender-affirming drugs like puberty blockers: “Will the district be dispensing these drugs at the new health clinics you are installing at the high schools?”

Such appearances have been ongoing for more than a year, according to Edmonds School Board President Nancy Katims.

“They think that somehow schools are giving gender-affirming drugs,” said Katims, who added that the school is not dispensing gender-affirming medications. “A lot of what they are putting into their three minutes are things they have pulled off the internet, that’s my belief.”

“They don’t completely just talk about LGBTQ issues; they also don’t like BLM month,” she added, referring to Black Lives Matter.

Some of the speakers come from Westgate Chapel, according to Katims, an Edmonds church whose website lists an activity group aimed at showing up and speaking at the school board. An email to the church seeking comment was not returned.

In Edmonds, the current debates are a turnabout from years past, according to City Councilmember Susan Paine, who sat on the school board from 2005 through 2011. During those years, public comment often focused on budget matters, she said, and occasionally some gentle discussion about sex education.

“I can’t remember a single comment about that other than parents coming in, probably with equal voices, saying can I excuse my student from the classroom if the material is something I object to, and then others coming in saying thank you for teaching the science,” Paine said.

“So it was not at all the pitchforks … that end up coming at the school board,” she added. “It just makes me sick.”

The ongoing public comment against transgender individuals has brought at least one person to the board meetings to speak up for the LGBTQ+ community.

“My main message that first night was that my older kid is trans, and he didn’t go to the bathroom during the day, because he felt at risk,” said Sarah Dilling, 51, of Mountlake Terrace. “It’s been frustrating.”

Nancy Katims, president of the Edmonds School Board, wears a pro-LGBTQ pin on her collar while leading a school board meeting on Aug. 29. LGBTQ issues have become a hot button item at school board meetings across the country. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Not a widespread movement

The push by advocates comes even as attempts to restrict sex education in schools and restrict transgender people have not gained wider traction in Washington.

In 2016 and 2017, a citizens group attempted to get an initiative on the ballot to roll back a state regulation guaranteeing access to locker rooms, restrooms, and other facilities according to an individual’s gender identity. Those attempts failed to get enough voter signatures to qualify for the November election.

Likewise, this year’s attempt to roll back an expansion of the law that allows organizations helping unsheltered youth to delay notifying a parent or guardian if there is a compelling reason not to, like abuse or neglect, also failed to make the ballot. The expansion of that law by Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic lawmakers added protected health care services, which include gender-affirming treatment and reproductive health care, to the list of compelling reasons.

Meanwhile, in 2020, 58% of state voters rejected a referendum that would have rolled back a comprehensive sex-education law passed in Olympia that year.

Now educators are frustrated – and a bit frightened – by the way the culture wars have entered their spaces, in both official and nonofficial ways, according to interviews with teachers and national studies.

In the Olympia School District, teachers have been subject to records requests from a citizens group seeking to expose alleged misdeeds surrounding race and gender.

In one case, the leader of a group known as the OSD Fairness Alliance obtained public records of educators and worked to raise concerns about an instance where a teacher was speaking to a 10-year-old student about their gender identity. That incident – which was reported on by journalist Brandi Kruse – was picked up by the national conservative publication The Post Millennial.

In another case, an Olympia teacher described the impact that questions sent to her by anonymous members of the alliance. Sara Foppiano, who in previous years worked at North Thurston Public Schools, said she received an email from the Alliance in January when she moved to the Olympia School District to work at Centennial Elementary School. While at North Thurston, Foppiano was an adviser for the Black Student Union, which at one point met by teleconference and was Zoom-bombed by people saying racial slurs.

After Foppiano moved to Centennial Elementary School, the OSD Fairness Alliance sent her an email: “When we learned that BIPOC groups were starting at CES, we wondered about your role with this group.”

“Have you been involved with the formation, planning or operation of this group?” it continued. “If so, we’d like to know more about your role with the BIPOC group. Perhaps you can help us understand the purpose and activities of this group, how it came to be and who may or may not be included.”

The Alliance didn’t respond to emails seeking comment about its advocacy. In an interview, Foppiano said that direct approach was a first for her.

“It was very unsettling … like as though it was almost a violation of privacy,” she said. “I mean, it was just that feeling of some anonymous individual or group of individuals went to the trouble to find my name, find my contact information, sit down and write an email, they wanted to make it very clear that they were aware of my teaching history, and use that as, I guess, almost this veiled threat.”

“It was the first time in my career that I was directly, you know, contacted in that way, and kind of asked to speak about my involvement in that kind of social justice work,” she added.

Foppiano decided to work this year as a substitute teacher, She would consider going back to a staff position, but the adversarial climate “definitely factors in” on any future decision, she added.

Another teacher at Centennial Elementary School said that the overall dynamic has resulted in a “a culture of fear.” The teacher, who didn’t want to be identified out of fear of reprisal, said they knew educators leaving positions because of the threats.

“Is my family going to be targeted, is my name going to be dragged through the mud?” asked the teacher. “Something as simple as representation of a queer family can cause folks to get hate mail.”

Book-ban efforts

A research report in 2023 from the nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization RAND noted that while educators face limitations not just from lawmakers in states that are restricting teaching and books, “teachers most commonly pointed to parents and families as a source of the limitations they experienced.“

The limitations have “negatively affected their working conditions,” according to the report, and educators are worried about the consequences for student learning.

Those teachers “described incidents in which they faced increased scrutiny from parents and in which parents complained about their lessons or use of materials, therefore making them more cautious or reluctant to address contentious topics even in the absence of formal limitations from their state or district,” according to the report.

That scrutiny of books is also playing out in Washington. In rural Columbia County, residents were set to weigh a November ballot measure that could have closed the library due to resistance to LGBTQ+ young-adult books. Last week, however, a judge barred it from appearing on the ballot. But educators elsewhere are hearing concerns from a smattering of parents about books being taught in schools.

Ryan Grant, leader of the Medical Lake Education Association and a teacher at Anderson Elementary, said their Eastern Washington district is hearing from more parents concerned about what books might be in the school library. Grant said the first flare-up he’d seen was several years ago, when a citizens group was trying to put the trans bathroom initiative on the statewide ballot. The effort failed, but things heated back up recently, and Grant said he’s also seeing a more concerted push among school board candidates.

Some school board candidates in his district are running in part on calls “to take a closer look at the library,” Grant said.

“If parents make their own decisions, I think that’s great,” he said. “When they’re trying to make that decision for an entire district, an entire school board, things tend to go a little sideways.”

In July, the Richland School Board discussed whether to remove a story featuring two gay parents that is included in some curricula for fourth graders. The objection came from a parent who described the book as “gender ideology” and asked that it be removed from the school curriculum. After a lengthy debate, the board voted to uphold the review by a superintendent and a committee on instructional materials and keep the book in the curriculum.

In this case, several people came to public comment to advocate against restricting “Adventure in El Yunque” by Christopher Rodriquez. The two-page story features a 10-year-old child who is out on a hike with her two dads, according to school board materials.

One commenter, Zoë Smith, described herself as lesbian and told the board “There is nothing wrong with loving caretakers taking a special birthday hike with their children.”

“Yes, to the chagrin of many members of the board and audience, we are real, live benevolent human beings that exist in the community,” said Smith, who is 20 and a recent graduate of the school district. She added: “Whether anyone here likes it or not, there are gay and trans students in RSD classrooms.”

By Joseph O’Sullivan /

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  1. Westgate Chapel has a large congregation, which includes many families and cultures. I feel by MEN allowing a Church to be named in this article, puts people in the congregation in jeopardy. There is a church in an Edmonds neighborhood that has suggested Joseph, Mary’s husband to be a Transgender. What would happen if I named the Church? Would some Christian’s feel the need to respond? Shouldn’t citizens feel safe at worship?

    1. This is republication of an article that appeared in Crosscut, and we trust their journalism. Happy to post a response from the church if they would like to provide one.

    2. Look at the average age of people who support LGBTQ+ rights, honest depictions of our past, and letting kids grow up aware in the world they actually will be living in. Then look at the age of those that don’t. This issue will take care of itself. (Oh, I’m 66. I’m just open minded.)

  2. Many parents pulled their children from public schools because of the curriculum. All of the districts have lost students and funding because of the new sex and gender identity curriculum. The children don’t belong to the school, government or political party. The children and their families should have a right to educate and guide their children as they wish. Teachers also left the districts or have refused to teach the gender identity and sexual identity curriculum. I have a friend in the district that gets in trouble with parents by calling the student by the students real name verses chosen name or vice versa, it’s ridiculous. Lets educate our children by calling them by their legal name period. Parents or Church members shouldn’t be made to feel they can’t or shouldn’t have a voice or feel unsafe. I don’t go to Westgate but I respect their ministry. I have friends that do attend the church on Sundays. Parents are not at War with the LGBTQI + community, I have not felt any hate in any of the discussions about the curriculum in question. I have heard parents concerned and upset because it’s not the schools right to hide or teach subjects without parents consent. Churches teach love thy neighbor. The article using war against LGBTQI + is misleading and antagonistic.

  3. I have attended four ESD board meetings and have spoken my concerns at three. Each time there was civil response to the speaker by the board, likewise the citizens to the board’s business session. I might add ESC is down 94 students from last year. There is a reason for this uptick in decrease. Enrollment in private schools has increased. Parents are not in agreement with Olympia’s radical decisions – period.

  4. I’m so glad this is getting attention. LGBTQIA+ students deserve a safe, supportive, and affirming learning environment.

  5. If the school district feels it is at war with parents who has the problem? The school is supposed to work with students, to teach writing, reading, math, and social studies, to prepare students to function in society. How does gender labeling, sexual preference prepare students for employment, college or trade schools?
    There is no race war or LGBTQI war in school. The children don’t seem to care what color John is or who he is crushing on, as long as he is a good person. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on kindness, honesty, compassion, friendship skills, listening skills, and problem/conflict solutions to create a better world?
    The Parents speaking out would prefer the basic studies in school were conducted and identities and sexual preferences were left out of the school curriculum.
    The district hates that parents are questioning their presumptive authority. School choice is the only workable option I see moving forward, but the schools don’t seem to want this solution. It’s unfortunate, parents had to leave the districts, to place their children in schools, that share their values and priorities in education. In the meantime, the school board should expect and appreciate the parents, who show up, giving the districts a chance, to listen and hear concerns, before these parents pull their kids too.

    1. The ESD teaches elementary school students mostly writing, reading, math and social studies. But then moving on they teach foreign language, sports and gym concepts, vocational skills, volunteerism, chemistry and biology, human anatomy, physiology and yes sexuality. Moving up the ladder they teach ecology and earth sciences, journalism, music, theater and the arts, robotics and mechanical sciences, construction and small home building, fisheries and marine science … just to scratch the surface. And the people who teach are doing that because they felt a calling to do that.

      Your family is welcome to limit your children’s educational experiences to core subjects for as long as you want. I’m really pleased with the breadth, scope and sensitivity of the educational experiences my children had in the ESD. They are now thriving as adults in a richly diverse, ever-changing and complex world. In part I have the ESC to thank for helping me raise, educate and prepare my son and daughter for success.

  6. The article is alarming for several reasons. As a former behavioral psychologist the agenda of forcing these alternative lifestyles ideas on children is actually child abuse. As a former practitioner who worked extensively with parents and children, there are virtually no practioners today that are ringing alarm bells against the atrocity of messing with a child’s mind by providing age inappropriate material to children. The confusion brought forward about transgenerism has planted seeds of doubt in the minds of young people now questioning their gender when they didn’t before. Look up Cloe Cole who has filed lawsuits against her former school and kaiser in CA. For letting her down by encouraging changing her gender. She regretted her surgery along with others and was left feeling victimized by school administrators and the hospital. This article is biased and doesn’t represent other important facts. LGBTQ topics belong in the home with parents and caregivers, not schools and administrators. It is manipulation of the mind of a child and therefore constitutes child abuse. Let’s get back to basics in schools and stop the confusion about what children are really supposed to be learning in school.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Waldron, and Ms. Kimball, for your thoughtful comments.

    As a queer person, as a Christian, and resident of Edmonds, it was difficult to read other contributors’ comments about LGBTQ+ people and communities. But, this isn’t a great forum for debate, and no one is going to come out ahead in this discussion on a neighborhood news site. That said, I respectfully ask folks to please not use phrases like “alternative lifestyle” and “sexual preference.” My lifestyle is not alternative and my identity is not a “preference.” In the words of one of the great musical artists of our time, I was born this way.

    1. Yes, That song performed and written( I assume) by Gaga is fantastic. It says all that anyone needs to know. There are lyrics in this song that apply to every human being. Everyone should listen to this and do the version with lyrics on the screen with the voice so you can read every word. I love it all but to anyone hating in the name of God the words God makes no mistakes…should be considered.
      I am not going to comment about the schools or education and all that here today, but I just want everyone to know we are all different and that is such a special gift. We are human. Robots are not. Be happy you are a feeling person able to feel and give love to all and also to yourself.

    2. Kim, This is not about the LGBTQIA community or race or gender choice. This concern parents have is who is deciding when and what is being taught. We have heard a lot about being inclusive unless you have a different opinion than the schools. I know you are smart and protective of your rights as you and I should be. Raising children and knowing what is going on in their heads has always been a parenting right. Kids will do things to get attention or to make themselves feel connected. Unless there is a renaming ceremony with the parents and child a child should go by their legal names and nothing should be hidden by the school. I feel that a sociology class in the later years of junior high would be more effective, because by that time the child would have more of an understanding of who they are. Having a 5 year old, choose how they identify is not desirable for all families. We all get to raise our kids and they do in the end make their decisions, when they are mature enough to make them. If the government schools want to do this then parents should have a right to opt out and have school choice.

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