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A Missouri school board could ban gender identity discussions in classrooms

Community members argue outside the Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board tabled measures restricting how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Community members argue outside the Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board tabled measures restricting how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.

More than 100 students, parents and teachers protested the proposals to ban discussions on gender identity and allow people to request books be banned. But the school board introduced the measures over their objections, with final votes coming as early as July.

The Francis Howell School District board on Thursday introduced seven controversial measures, including one that would prohibit classroom discussion on gender identity and another that would require a district committee’s approval of all books and classroom materials.

The board’s decision came despite the objections of more than 100 students, parents, teachers and others who held a rally before its meeting to decry the proposals.

“A society grows great when elders plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in,” said Nathaniel Basset, a Francis Howell parent who opposes the board's plans. “But the actions taken by the majority of this board are those of arsonists burning down forests to eliminate what they don't understand and fill up the world with emptiness inside of them. The proposed policies…spell the death of curiosity.”

Another proposal would allow any resident or employee in the district to ask that a book is removed from school libraries and classrooms. The book wouldn’t return to shelves until approved by a nine-person review committee. It would include the school’s principal, teachers, a School Board member and four lay persons.

Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board considered tabled measures that would restrict how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board considered tabled measures that would restrict how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.

District employees also are concerned that School Board members are unqualified to make decisions on book bans. Jeff Bargielski, lead library media specialist for the district said the book bans would create learning barriers for students.

“Some of the students face heavy, complicated issues at home,” Bargielski said. “As such, our age-appropriate book collections should sometimes address those complicated issues.”

School Board Treasurer Jane Puszkar said the board’s 5-2 conservative majority aims to protect students from “brain propaganda.”

“We are removing the politics contained that disparage … conservative leaders and exalt those who are liberal,” Puszkar said. “Children are very impressionable at that age.”

Board members had planned to include a measure barring teachers from discussing partisan, political or social issues but decided Wednesday to wait until teachers union representatives could review it.

Community members show support at the Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board considered tabled measures that would restrict how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Community members show support at the Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board considered tabled measures that would restrict how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.

Officials from the teachers union filed a grievance with the district, citing a contractual agreement that requires board members to negotiate with the union before introducing bans on “advocacy activities”

But students and parents still want School Board President Adam Bertrand and Vice President Randy Cook to withdraw all of the proposals. Chelsea Freels, a 2023 graduate of Clayton High School, said she hopes her LGBTQ peers in Francis Howell schools can continue to have supportive conversations with teachers.

“A threat to queer students in one place is a threat to queer students in every place,” Freels said. “We need to support each other. If we don't support each other, what are we doing?”

Carolie Owens and Steven Blair, board members who are not members of the conservative majority, used the start of the meeting to ask fellow board members to introduce the policies at a later date. Four other board members declined, voting to move forward with a first reading of the proposals. Final votes could come in July.

“You don't just do it in a haphazard manner,” Owens said. “You follow a plan, so that you come up with the best plan for everyone, so no one is discriminated against and no one is treated unfairly…that's what schools are about.”

Carolie Owens, Director speaks at Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board considered tabled measures that would restrict how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.
Theo R. Welling
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Carolie Owens, Director speaks at Francis Howell School District administrative offices on Thursday, June 20, 2024, in O'Fallon, Mo. The Francis Howell School District's board considered tabled measures that would restrict how teachers can speak about gender identity in schools.

Harper Schnieder, a junior at Francis Howell North couldn’t help but notice Bertrand and Cook waited to introduce the measures until weeks after school dismissed for the summer.

That came less than a year after the board members voted to remove Black history and literature courses across the district. The district later re-introduced the classes after removing social justice standards developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“The board actually placed the Black literature and Black History ban during winter break,” Schneider said. “Now they're kind of doing the same thing again, with these new policies over summer break. It's kind of a real reoccurrence with having people not pay attention to what the board is trying to do to our education.”

Cook wasn’t present to answer questions about the proposed policies, and Bertrand did not speak on the measures during the meeting.

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Lauren Brennecke
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