Lessons learned: Censorship of a gay valedictorian

Valedictorian Evan Young made national news after his high school, Twin Peaks Charter Academy, refused to allow him to give a graduation speech in which he came out as gay. The school maintains that Young’s speech violated school policy in numerous ways and that the administration would have canceled the speech even if he was heterosexual. LGBTQ advocates and political leaders argue that the school discriminated against Young, violated Colorado equal-opportunity laws and breached his privacy when the principal outed the valedictorian to his parents without permission.

The school has since committed to an internal investigation that will be wrapped up by July. Meanwhile, Congressman Jared Polis, who represents the surrounding area, has asked the district’s school board and superintendent to conduct an independent investigation.

While all that shakes out, here are a few key things to note.


It matters that this happened at a charter school

“This is a situation that highlights how independently the charters operate, for good or bad,” said Debbie Lammers, who sits on the St. Vrain Valley School District Board. “Our oversight role is pretty much limited to financial and academic accountability. Unless you’re deeply involved in education in some way in terms of K-12, I think the public may not understand how charters operate in terms of their relationships with the districts that authorize them.”

In his own sharp critique of the school, Polis suggested that prohibiting Young’s speech may be a violation of state law and district policy that ensures equal educational opportunities to all students. That, the congressman suggested, could be grounds for the district to sever their relationship with the charter.

For her part, Lammers was clear that the school board hasn’t yet discussed the Twin Peaks case in any formal or informal capacity. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for June 10th.


Questions of character education and privatization 

Character development appears to be a hugely important component of Twin Peaks Charter Academy’s pedagogy, as is the case in many charter schools statewide. Twin Peaks’ website declares that its high-school curriculum focuses on teaching students  a new character trait each month, beginning with “orderliness” and concluding with “truthfulness.”

Twin Peaks purchases and teaches the Character First curriculum, which is owned and sold by Strata Leadership LLC, which also provides character-development services for private companies and local governments.

Billed as nonsectarian, Character First was originally based on a model developed by the Institute in Basic Life Principleswhich “is dedicated to giving clear training on how to find success by following God’s principles found in Scripture.” Tom Hill, the businessman who created Character First, served on the board of Basic Life Principles from 1993 to 2005. To this day, the majority of clients using the Character First curriculum are Christian schools, including the National Christian School Association.

At graduation, when students asked Principal BJ Bachmann why Young was not giving his speech, Bachmann apparently said, “Evan has bad character.”

“A charter school can be based in Christian values without saying so, just as there can be privatized control without saying it’s privatized. As we saw, you have to buy this curriculum from a corporation. It’s a way of taking control away from teachers,” said professor sj Miller, who teaches at the University of Colorado School of Education.

“Christian values – while all religious values are important – should not be the foundation of a public school,” Miller concluded. “There’s supposed to be a separation of church and state, but privatization can lend itself to cultivating and reinforcing Christianity.”


Who’s right about whose rights? 

The weight of various people’s – or institution’s – legal rights dominate this debate.

In defending the school’s decision to pull the speech, the attorney for Twin Peaks cited the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision that found schools have the right to edit students’ speech when it’s deemed “inconsistent with ‘the shared values of a civilized social order.”

From the school’s official statement on their decision:
Evan Young School Lawyer But not all educational experts and lawyers agree.

Professor and attorney Kevin Welner, the Director of the National Education Policy Center, offered a very different interpretation:

“The charter school thought it necessary to remove mention of the student’s disclosure of a secret he was keeping – that he’s gay. The reason given by the charter school is they didn’t think it appropriate for him to ‘push his personal agenda.’ But the student’s statement can only be read as pushing a personal agenda if we first decide that a gay person’s sexual orientation should be kept closeted. If a heterosexual student mentioned during a valedictory speech, for instance, her love for her boyfriend, it is doubtful that school authorities would see that as pushing an agenda—personal or otherwise. In terms of First Amendment law, that’s called ‘viewpoint discrimination,’ and it’s unconstitutional.”

The school staunchly maintains that even a straight student would have been censored if they wanted to talk about romantic relationships and sexuality.

Twin Peaks’ board president Kathy DeMatteo used the same argument when Congressman Jared Polis, who represents the area and is gay, accused the school of violating state law guaranteeing all students equal educational opportunities.

“Your reference to the district’s non-discrimination policy is simply not germane,” she retorted.


Privacy matters

Also being debated are Evan Young’s privacy rights as a student who had already turned 18. When Twin Peaks principal BJ Bachmann notified Young’s parents that he would not be allowed to make his graduation speech he also outed Young as gay – without the adult student’s permission.

Polis called this move “unthinkably reckless.”

“The action by the principal was not only a serious violation of Evan’s privacy — particularly since he had already reached 18 years of age at the time — but it also placed him in a potentially dangerous situation…. It is a leading driver of youth homelessness,” Polis wrote in his scathing letter to the school.

This question of a student’s right to privacy from their parents revealed yet another rights disagreement between the school and those critical of the administration’s decision.

“You are simply wrong,” DeMatteo wrote back. “The Department of Eduction’s regulations are quite clear on this point. The parents of a dependent student — even one who is over 18 — have the right to access his education record.”


The right questions?

Much of the reporting and analysis around Evan Young’s graduation-speech censorship has focused on who is at fault. Is it the school’s fault for discriminating against a gay student? Is it Young’s fault for, according to DeMatteo, chopping off the sleeves of his graduation gown to wear it as a cape and threatening to sing a mysterious and un-screened song at the podium?

According to Sara Staley and Bethy Leonardi the question of who’s at fault misses a larger and more important question: What can be done better? Staley and Leonardi co-direct A Queer Endeavor, an initiative at the CU School of Education that aims to help teachers and schools better support LGBTQ students and include gender and sexual diversity in curricula.

“What happened was terrible, in many ways irresponsible… all the things we’ve already read about in the media and in people’s public responses,” said Leonardi. “Yet Sara and I believe that people involved in education truly want to support their students and do right by kids.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time with the school’s statement, the last line of which says, ‘All students are known, valued and challenged to achieve [their] personal best.’ We don’t doubt that’s true, that it’s the school’s intention,” agreed Staley. “But the research is pretty decisive in saying that schooling is often a violent context for LGTBQ youth.”

From that vantage point, both Staley and Leonardi called Principal Bachmann’s outing of Young and the school’s decision not to allow him to give his speech “missed opportunities.”

“I was disheartened by the principal’s response [to Young coming out in his proposed speech],” Leonardi said. “It was a missed opportunity for him to connect with Young, to say, ‘Woah. How are you? How is it going?”

“This was a wonderful opportunity they missed to allow a marginalized student to be affirmed for who he is, to make him visible,” agreed Staley.

Both Staley and Leonardi also said there’s a historical context for the school’s caginess around focusing on Young’s sexual orientation that doesn’t necessarily mean the school is totally at fault.

“For many educators, when they started teaching, it was like, ‘Don’t ever talk about this [sexuality],’ and now they have to talk about it,” said Leonardi. “We’ve worked with some amazing teachers, lots of them, hundreds of them, just over the last year, who want to do this work and just need the support to understand how to… History has brought us to this place. People are coming out more. More kids are seeing that and thinking, ‘Maybe that’s who I am becoming?’ They’re breaking the silence, and we need to acknowledge that and catch up with the identities and needs of today’s students.”


Edit note: The issue of fault has been re-worked in the “right questions” section to better reflect the position of Leonardi and Staley. 

A rainbow of graduation tassels, image via Youtube