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Will an LGBTQ+ affinity club be allowed to continue at Pittsford elementary schools?

Crystal Petit Frere (rainbow shirt) who has a child entering kindergarten next year and a son in 8th grade in Pittsford attended the school district board meeting in support of the PTSA after-school group for students, Rainbow Club.
Max Schulte
Crystal Petit Frere (rainbow shirt) who has a child entering kindergarten next year and a son in 8th grade in Pittsford attended the school district board meeting in support of the PTSA after-school group for students, Rainbow Club.

An elementary after-school program that explores aspects of life within the LGBTQ community was at the center of a heated public comment session at Tuesday night’s Pittsford Board of Education meeting.

In the days leading up to the meeting, a flyer for the Rainbow Club circulated on social media and garnered hundreds of comments.

School board president Amy Thomas condemned some of the language used before opening up the floor.

“Given the vitriol shared amongst social media channels, the Board of Education needs to be very clear that we denounce all forms of hate and discrimination, in this case, toward our LGBTQIA+ students and families,” Thomas said to an eruption of applause.

Drew Mokris was among those in support of the club. His kindergartner, Franny, attended a Rainbow Club at her school this past winter. He said she learned the importance of respecting others’ differences.

“There are always going to be members of the LGBTQIA+ community among our students and families in Pittsford,” Mokris said. “Sadly, members of this community are at higher risk of being bullied. So everything we can do to show them that they're respected here, that they can live their lives with dignity, and that they have allies, is so meaningful and important.”

Max Schulte
Samson Weinberg of Rochester hugs Kellie Gauvin, who has children in the 6th and 11th grades in Pittsford, after she spoke in favor of the Rainbow Club at the district board meeting Tuesday night. Gauvin’s younger child identifies as non-binary and Weinberg uses He/They pronouns.

The club also drew criticism.

“There's a lot of attention on the pronoun, but there are seven other parts of speech ... pronoun is just one out of eight,” Teresa Yung said. “If teachers need to worry about how to address a boy or girl to avoid offending them, and you may get them canceled or even get fired, how can they (teach)?”

Another speaker questioned how these issues were being presented.

“Is the PTA qualified to run a group like this? These are really sensitive topics and having unlicensed people teaching this material poses risks of harm to children,” said Amy Ord. “These are developing children, and they're in their most formative years. These are complex topics and they're usually, you know, introduced more in high school and in middle school.”

While this meeting is happening in a small town of about 30,000 people, it’s part of a national conversation.

Last week in Florida, a bill was passed that bans classroom discussions about LGBTQ issues. It also requires schools to report when a student receives mental health services, effectively outing some students who may not feel safe coming out to their families.

Earlier this week, a similar law was introduced in Ohio.

Milo Obourn, chair of the women and gender studies department at SUNY Brockport and a parent, said this trend is rooted in censorship, erasure, and intolerance.

Educating students on the fact that LGBTQ people exist is not the same as teaching a sex-ed class, Obourn said.

“I don't know why we think that we can't talk to children about gay parents, where we can talk to them about straight parents, right?" they said. "Like, you have a mom and a dad, and we don't have to say exactly the physical things that those people were doing with each other to create the child, but we still talk about straight families.”

According to the National Mental Health Association, children and teens who identify as queer, trans or gay are nearly twice as likely than their peers to be bullied, harassed, and physically assaulted.

The organization recommends GSAs or Gay-Straight Alliance clubs to provide a safe space in school for those students.

Max Schulte
Mike Pero, Superintendent of Pittsford schools, asks the crowd to not use derogatory speech or name-calling after a man making a public comment was interrupted by someone saying "pedophilia."

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Michael Pero remarked on some of the social media chatter that erupted over the last week around Rainbow Club.

Just as students may struggle with online bullying, he said in this case, adults exemplified that they are just as capable of the same offense

“I worry about our students and what they're seeing and feeling based on what's happening with social media. I worry about how they feel about themselves, their own self-worth. A lot of us are here tonight, because of stuff that have happened with adults and social media.”

After the meeting, TJ Paran, a ninth-grader in the district, said it was shocking to see how many parents wanted to get rid of the club. Paran assisted a Rainbow Club over the winter.

“I saw their smiles and their laughs and how they talk to each other,” Paran said. “And I realized, ‘Wow, they are really open with each other.’ And even I sometimes see myself really limiting what I say to some of the people in my school like because I don't know, like who to trust in my own school.”

Paran said they were inspired by how comfortable and knowledgeable the younger students were with concepts around gender and identity.

"It makes them feel safe in their schools, so to take it away is really heartbreaking to me," they said. "It would be good if I had that when I was in elementary school.”

Thomas explained that the board has no jurisdiction over after-school clubs. However, Superintendent Michael Pero said all such programs going forward will need to abide by the same strict approval process through principals and the district.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.