LGBTQ community members and activists commended Hartford Public Schools officials during Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting for the district’s handling of a personnel matter involving a school nurse placed on administrative leave for online comments about LGBTQ students.
“I’m here today not to complain about anything, I wanted to say thank you,” said Lindsey Pasquale, an organizer with PFLAG Hartford, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
Tuesday’s meeting was the board’s first since a school nurse was placed on administrative leave for what the district described as inappropriate comments about LGBTQ students posted using the nurse’s personal Facebook account.
In a March 28 letter to the school community, Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said the comments described private and personal details about a specific student.
“The manner in which the comments were shared, and the values they express, are totally inconsistent with what we stand for,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
The incident attracted a wide range of media attention, extending from local outlets to The Daily Mail, a British newspaper. An article also appeared in The Blaze, a conservative online media outlet.
District officials have since received a wave of violent threats, now under investigation by Hartford police, which included disturbing calls and emails calling for their lives. Torres-Rodriguez said Tuesday that the majority of threats have been directed toward her.
The threats appear to stem from inaccurate interpretations of the nurse’s comments, which have led to false allegations that Hartford school staff is indoctrinating students or providing puberty-blocking hormone inhibitors without parental consent.
According to district policy, Hartford school staff are prohibited from administering medication to students without the authorization of a medical provider and the written consent of a parent or guardian.
“Administering medication without this authorization would be both a violation of our policies, and it’s also illegal,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
In spite of the threats, Torres-Rodriguez insisted that the district’s commitment to providing a safe, inclusive environment for students regardless of identity is unwavering.
“I know that there is no doubt in my mind, and there is no doubt in my heart, that we will continue to dedicate our lives to our students, and that there is nothing more important to us than seeing them succeed,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “And we will be there for each and every one of our students, even through the struggles.”
“This board, and I, and our staff will continue to focus on becoming an antiracist and an anti-bias organization. That work is actually never ending,” she said.
That work was applauded by several who spoke Tuesday night.
Jennifer Quaye-Hudson, director of external affairs for Connecticut Voices for Children, highlighted the organization’s 2018 report on youth identity development, which found that adolescence is a critical time for the development of gender identity.
But young people often lack supportive environments to develop and express their orientations safely. In 2014, more than half of Connecticut queer youth reported experiencing verbal harassment at school, Quaye-Hudson said. Sixteen percent reported being physically harassed. Meanwhile, sexual orientation is one of several other primary risk factors for youth homelessness.
Support for transgender youth is particularly crucial, as the Trevor Project’s 2021 survey on LGBQT youth mental health found that more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months.
Ace Ricker, a transgender man and Q Plus board member, said he sees himself in those statistics.
“The harassment, and the lack of education to staff and teachers and students, caused a lot of trauma,” Ricker said. “I applaud the work you’re doing. Because of the struggles I faced, I don’t any of these young kids to have to deal with those kinds of struggles.”
Cordner, the Q Plus founding director, said that the suicide risk for transgender youth can be virtually eliminated, so long as young people have at least one supportive adult in their lives.
Ricker and other speakers encouraged the Hartford school board to pursue education and trainings for students and staff, and strengthen policies around protecting transgender and nonbinary youth.
Tuesday’s board meeting did include first reading on a new curricular exemption policy, which allows parents to opt out of lessons on certain sensitive material.
The policy would expand the current list of permitted exemptions to include substance abuse education, bilingual education and for religious or medical purposes.
Board members did not discuss the policy, but Torres-Rodriguez said it serves as an example of the strong partnership between the district and families.
“It is, and it will continue to be, our mission to do right by each and every one of our students. We know that we need the support of our families to accomplish that,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
Seamus McAvoy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org