Karin Mak has two children in South Pasadena’s educational system and is among a large group of parents who expressed support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer (LGBTQ) instruction in local schools during a Board of Education meeting.
Board members made it abundantly clear after spending nearly 90 minutes listening to public testimony that they are in full support of students with varied sexual orientations and gender identities.
“My kids are young, but know they’re thinking about these things and wondering about their body,” explained Mak, one of 26 speakers who went to the podium on June 25 to express their viewpoint to the board. “They’re trying to understand themselves in relation to others. So, I think this curriculum is vital. It’s important to their health and wellbeing. What drew me to South Pasadena were the schools. I have been consistently impressed. Thank you for your service, and I want to express my strong support for this curriculum that I think it is very important.”
As part of a June 11 school board meeting, a small group of parents raised concerns regarding an LGBTQ curriculum being taught in the local school system. One parent, Alan Ma, whose son attends Marengo Elementary School, brought a collection of children’s books he claimed contain the subject matter presented in the classroom.
Ma expressed his concern that the material was being exposed to students without making parents aware. “This greatly concerns me and my family,” he said, noting that he “read a lot on the topic,” telling members of the board the inclusion of the LGBT course study is a controversial matter. “We the parents feel extremely uncomfortable for our kids to be exposed to this LGBT content at this very early age. We truly believe the LGBT content is not age appropriate for elementary kids. There’s no medical research, so far, to conclude the social cultural influences on a gender identity and sexual orientation.”
A far different audience addressed the issue two weeks later when the boardroom was full of pro LGBTQ curriculum speakers. No opposition was heard.
Esther Yoon relocated with her family to South Pasadena three years ago, coming from the Westside of Los Angeles, saying she is grateful for the schools in the community in which she believes are diverse, progressive and inclusive of others. “I am so incredibly disheartened to hear that members of our community are choosing to promote a culture of exclusion rather than inclusion,” she said. “We live in a modern world and I strongly support the continued LGBTQ education at SPUSD.”
After hearing the public comments along with those from board members, South Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Geoff Yantz explained after district officials met with the concerned parents regarding the controversial topic there is no consideration at this time for the district to change the teaching of the district’s core values, meaning LGBTQ will remain a topic.
That should be welcome news to speaker Caroline Kimble, a senior at South Pasadena High, who said, like others, that opposition to LGBTQ instruction in the schools was disappointing and learning “it was happening in our own community that I’ve always thought of being so diverse, inclusive. I support LGBTQ education in our elementary schools. I think it’s really important that our school district fosters diversity and inclusion.”
Wearing a white hat covering much of his head, young Adrian Molina, who will start the 4th grade at Monterey Hills Elementary School in the fall, could barely reach the microphone standing his tallest, but was determined to get his message across. “I too support LGBTQ people. Thank you for your time.”
Paul Scott told the board he chose the South Pasadena Unified School District for his children because of its “diversity, both racially, economically, and we thought, and can now clearly feel that it was a progressive district. And those were the values we had, and we wanted to grow up in this community with those values.”
Scott backs Board of Education member Michele Kipke’s idea of hoping that an assortment of books- with the LGBTQ messages that were presented to Marengo students and brought to the board’s June 11 meeting by one of the parents in opposition – will be introduced in all the elementary schools within the district and actively made part of the everyday curriculum.
“I hope that my children can have that sort of introduction to these issues that they are undoubtedly dealing with,” said Scott. “They have friends. We can all see things. We know what’s going to happen in their lives. They are going to have many, many gay and lesbian friends. They may be gay and lesbian themselves or transgender. I want them to know that everything is going to be okay.”
Public comments pushed the necessity for diversity, inclusion and representation in the classroom, stressing the importance of teaching about lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexuality. “It’s very important that we include everybody,” said one speaker. Another in support expressed that she was the proud mother of a transgender child “and he didn’t come out until he was almost 16,” she explained. “We didn’t know he was struggling for so long.” Had LGBTQ instruction been available his “life would have been easier for him. These books would have been life changing for him.”
One woman insisted learning about sexual identity was an important first step in creating a welcoming, safe and inclusive school environment for all children. A teen who graduated from SPHS a month ago and now headed to USC in the fall, noted: “When we talk about South Pasadena, we talk about our schools and what we do to foster the next generation,” he said. “If we don’t look into promoting diversity and inclusiveness, we can’t say that. I couldn’t have gotten to the place I’m at in my life if it weren’t for South Pasadena. I’m really proud of that, and I hope we can continue to promote the attitude of diversity, inclusiveness and representation in our community.”
Helen Mendoza, a lesbian mother, found community support, friendship, and love through countless relationships established in South Pasadena. “Erasing history and the stories of a group of people or any individual leads to marginalization,” she said to the board. “Marginalization leads to discrimination and finally to violence and death. When you ask to dismiss and erase the stories about LGBTQ people, you’re asking to erase the current stories of your neighbors, the parents of your children, your teachers, some of your board members. You’re asking to erase my life from the lives of your children. And that’s not okay by me.”
Standing before the board, Jeff Rosenberg, a parent of a student, read the City of South Pasadena’s resolution passed in 2016 calling for diversity and inclusivity, affirming the city’s commitment for safeguarding the civil rights, including the safety, dignity and liberties of all residents, free of discrimination and intimidation.
Karen Osborne did not intend on speaking about the topic, “but I was stirred this afternoon when I learned about this meeting,” said the parent of children in the school district. “I grew up in South Pasadena. I went to Monterey Hills [Elementary School]. I went to the junior high. I graduated from the high school in 1987 and I chose to return here to raise my children with my husband Matt. The last several years have been difficult to say the least. The culture, the attitude, the open hostility and divisiveness that I experience as a black woman is palpable.”
Osborne continued, “And I came here tonight because I choose to embrace difference. I choose to raise my children to respect others irrespective of their choices, their beliefs. I raise my kids hoping they will be tolerant of others and embrace the fact that each and every one of us as a part of humanity can contribute to the diverse tapestry that is our world. And every thread of that tapestry is valuable and important and can’t just be tossed aside. It’s really important for me to know the community in which my family lives not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.”
Osborne finally concluded, “It’s important that our schools acknowledge and recognize contributions from every part humanity – LGBTQ, African American, Asian Pacific, Native American. Whatever it is, it’s all important to create the type of world which I want my children to live and to inherit. There is a swell that is rising that I think I’m buoyed to come here tonight and see the faces of the many parents of my children and their friends. And it gives me some hope that we have the ability to standup and change the tide, to standup and honor every single person as part of our collective humanity. I hope you as a school board will take the steps to support and endorse curriculum that urges that.”
Ed Donnelly, active in the community and among the founders of the D.U.D.E.S., – Dads Uniting Dads in Education and Service – which continues to give back to South Pasadena schools, talked to “dozens and dozens” of local community members about the LGBTQ issue and explained parents are launching a campaign to raise funds to ensure “that every teacher, every student, and everyone in South Pasadena has the resources they need to continue to teach LGBTQ curriculum in our schools to our kids now!” he said.
Lauren Black was among those urging LGBTQ support in the classroom, urging the board to “preach tolerance, love and inclusion early and often,” she said. “We should learn about this much earlier. I want to speak out in support. I hope we can continue to move this forward.”
Board members were unable to respond to the comments during the visitor comment portion of the agenda, but SPUSD President Dr. Suzie Abajian urged the audience to remain in their seats, noting that her colleagues could use their time during “Board Reports” to weigh-in on the issue. All five members on the panel took the opportunity to thank those in the audience for attending the meeting and for showing support.
First to speak from the board was Kipke, who is openly gay and was genuinely touched by the overwhelming support of South Pasadena residents who came to the meeting. “This is just nothing short of extraordinary,” she said. “Like you, I moved to South Pasadena and have raised my children in this community attending these schools because diversity, inclusiveness and respect for all are core values of this community. As a member of the LGBT community I wished I had been raised in a school district like this. As a member of the LGBT community and with two daughters who have two moms, I am so happy they don’t experience any sort of discrimination or stigma at all. That is what makes this community so special. I want to thank everyone who has come tonight and I want to thank the families who attended our last board meeting. I appreciate that you’ve come here tonight and that they came to express there strong believes. Obviously, I believe everyone should have the opportunity to express their beliefs and is entitled to their own beliefs.”
Kipke also believes the LGBTQ discussion has afforded us “the opportunity as a district and a board to reaffirm our core values, which are inclusiveness and respect for all. To the families that were here at our last board meeting who have such strong opposition to the manner in which we support our students, I will say this: The factual data that they presented to the board is wrong. The messages they shared are potentially harmful to all of our children. I’m more than happy to gather data and to assemble evidence that speaks very strongly to how important it is that we support our diverse student population, and that we create a school climate that is safe for all children regardless of their sexual or gender identity. Being LGBT does not cause a young person to experience serious mental health problems nor does it cause suicide. Growing up in a hostile, homophobic and transphobic home does. So, to those parents, please be kind to your children. And please keep them in our schools so that we can ensure they have the support they deserve.”
Her comments were received by a loud applause from audience members.
“What I’ve really seen tonight,” added fellow board member Jon Primuth, “is people who are really committed to making a more perfect union, a better community and a community where all people feel like they have a chance at being treated fairly and having happiness in society. And the way we create a better community is through more understanding. And the more understanding requires empathy, and understanding personal experience. If you don’t have personal experience of being ostracized, marginalized or in the minority, you have to borrow that from somebody else. And the way to do that is through friendship, through listening to other experiences, through stories. If we can increase our capacity for empathy in our children we can progress as a society. I don’t think there’s any other rational way to move forward. So, I’m very touched at what I’m seeing in our school district. I’m happy we have the type of curriculum we do and I think it’s going to be a fantastic way to move our community forward.”
The parents in opposition to the LGBTQ taught in schools were heard by the district’s administration, noted Primuth. “They spent a lot of time just listening and encouraging and explaining and clarifying what we were doing and what we weren’t doing. I want you to know this administration does respect parent rights and in this particular instance I think they did a really great job. That might be something we all might need someday if we find ourselves at odds with the school administration. I want to congratulate the administration for really going the extra mile with these folks.”
SPUSD Board Member Zahir Robb said it “speaks to South Pasadena, it speaks to our community,” recognizing the city is built around tolerance and acceptance. “I’m glad to say I’ve experienced all of that during my children’s experience…when we talk about educating our youth, there’s no better time than today to make sure we’re talking about inclusiveness, diversity and tolerance. Because curriculum around these issues creates a better citizenry I think we all want to be a part of and a citizenry we all want our children to be raised within.”
Ruby Kalra, a member of the Board of Education, added, “I think it’s important that we’re all standing here together. We want people to feel that they belong and that they matter.”
Abajian received numerous emails regarding the LGBTQ issue and she is in “full support of making our curriculum more inclusive,” taking a minute to read one of the letters from a parent who insists the local school district’s job is to serve all students.
“The evidence is overwhelming that LGBTQ inclusive schools benefit all students…An inclusive curriculum also helps the whole community of students by creating opportunities to practice empathy, understanding and fostering mutual respect,” Abajian said, reading the words.
In his leadership role of the school district, Yantz, creating a culture where everyone belongs, explained that he’s been the superintendent for just over six years, and from the moment he walked onto the South Pasadena High campus “one of the things that struck me most,” he said, “was the level of inclusiveness that the environment bestowed, from how the students communicated with each other, from teachers to students, the administrators, the parents, everybody involved. It was extraordinary.”
What he also discovered was a city that has an “incredible level of passion, and caring for all community members and children in this town,” Yantz added, before remarking he feels fortunate “to work here, and I appreciate the support everybody gives.”
Not only for himself, but to those who have helped shape and create an inclusive way of life for everyone in South Pasadena.