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Colorado teachers union backs LGBTQ+ inclusion in public schools

Dave Lockley, one of the Colorado Education Association presenters on Jan. 24, is a social studies teacher in Westminster. (Colorado Education Association’s YouTube)
CEA initiative comes after report says 85% of educators are not ‘out’ at school

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, on Jan. 24 discussed its 2023 report and initiatives for the year, including increased inclusion and systems geared toward LGBTQ+ educators and students.

The announcement of CEA’s new initiative was met with mixed feelings and an unenthusiastic response from Cortez school leaders, though they didn’t expressly state their opinion.

Others, like U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert from District 3 slammed the initiative, saying that teachers should focus solely on educating students rather than have inappropriate sexual conversations with minors.

CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert led the Zoom meeting by discussing the report, which continued discussion points on school safety and teacher shortages and salaries. The question of LGBTQ+ educators in school came up repeatedly as a hot topic for presenters.

Discussing the report’s new segment, titled “Proactive inclusion for LGBTQ+ educators and students, ” the group noted that one of the top three factors that most negatively affected educators in Colorado was a lack of LGBTQ+ acceptance and inclusion.

“Eighty-five percent of our LGBTQ+ educators are not ‘out’ at school or in their workplace,” Baca-Oehlert said. “Less than half of transgender, nonbinary, gay, lesbian and bisexual Colorado youth felt that they belonged at their schools. The same goes for LGBTQ+ educators.”

Kasey Ellis, a middle school science teacher and president of the Cherry Creek Education Association, said LGBTQ+ educators are targeted and left derogatory notes and other means of harassment by students and other faculty who don’t accept their life choices.

She said the CEA is working with the Social Justice Council to create training for teachers and students to teach them to be more inclusive and accepting.

“We need to accept people for who they are, what they’re all about, and help these numbers change,” Ellis said.

The group said change would be best accomplished locally through school board and district resolutions rather than with a statewide approach.

“We really want to work with our local school boards and districts around creating more inclusive and safe policies for our educators, and it goes from things like having inclusive bathroom spaces to having protections in place for people to feel like they can be who they are in their workplace,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Dave Lockley, a middle school social studies teacher and president of the District 12 Educators Association in Westminster, said a lack of protections leads to repercussions when “transgendered staff tried to come out and live their true selves.”

Ellis added that “mean and uncool” parents who went to school board meetings seeking to ban LGBTQ+-themed literature in the schools were exacerbating the issue.

According to the LGBTQ+ portion of the report compiled by CEA, a survey in 2022 showed that the “majority of LGBTQ+ educators work in school environments where they feel neither safe nor supported.”

The statistics they gathered showed that 85% of LGBTQ+ educators are not “out” at school and 80% work without “gender-inclusive restrooms.”

“In order for our students to thrive, it’s critical that proactive inclusion policies are enacted,” the report stated.

An LGBTQ+ teacher who was surveyed and anonymously quoted in the report said, “I am misgendered all the time. I don’t think my admin is well-equipped to be allies.”

Local leaders weigh in

The union’s LGBTQ+ initiative met mixed response in Montezuma County and in Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1.

Rep. Lauren Boebert told The Journal that schools should focus on education.

“Teachers should be focused on teaching, not on strategies for how to come out as LGBTQ to their students. Students go to school to learn about math and reading – not their teachers’ sexual preferences. There is no excuse for a teacher to ever talk about explicit sexual topics with minor students.”

The Journal was unable to reach state Rep. Marc Catlin, a Republican from District 58.

Montezuma-Cortez has representatives from CEA in each school in the district who meet to discuss improving the schools and work on CEA’s initiatives.

Roxanne Stephens, the CEA representative for Mesa Elementary where she teaches second grade, declined to comment about CEA’s LGBTQ+ segment of their 2023 report. However, she said she doesn’t like seeing those kinds of debates take place in the schools.

“I don’t like seeing those debates in the building because it affects our children. And that’s why I’m there,” Stephens said.

Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Tom Burris said his focus is on student education, improving test scores and making sure students get the education that allows them to go to any college they want.

“My focus has been on improving language arts, math, science, social studies and getting kids ready for college,” Burris said. “I have friends who are exactly who you're talking about, and it’s fine and it’s just that they are what they are. I’m going to focus on state standards of education and raising our scores, which will in turn, make Cortez a better and more attractive place to live. Which in turn, gets people like doctors and lawyers and professionals to move to Cortez.”

“My priorities are that we have great classroom education, that kids will do well on the state tests and that they are able to get it into any college if they want,” Burris said.

While they didn’t directly weigh in on CEA stance, the school board last year decided not to allow students to have club meetings during lunch or while on school property, and that included the high school’s LGBTQ+ club.

Many from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes club urged the board members to change their decision at a meeting in October.

CEA was founded in 1875. According to its website, the union works to “provide the best public education for every student.”

CEA represents more than 39,000 K-12 teachers in the state. They are also a branch of the National Education Association, which is America’s oldest and largest organization “dedicated to advancing the cause of public education.” CEA has affiliates in all 50 states and have over 3 million members from preschool to university professionals.

The 2023 CEA report can be viewed online at https://bit.ly/CEAinitiative.