Protesters get confrontational over D11 pronoun ban

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(Photo by Bryan Oller)

Protesters gathered outside Colorado Springs School District 11’s administration building yesterday in a heated demonstration over the Board of Education’s proposal to ban staff members from asking students’ pronouns.

In the end, police showed up at the demonstration, which at one point got confrontational.

The tensions also spilled over into the D11 Board of Education’s regular meeting, which started shortly after the protests. Several people were removed. People delivered emotionally-charged public comments about the pronoun policy and another controversial board discussion about how the district may survey students on topics like their mental health and whether they’ve been abused.

The Protest and Counter-protest

The rally against the policy on March 8 was the second in two weeks held outside where the D11 board meets. Opponents of the ban say LGBTQ students greatly benefit from teachers and other staff asking for their pronouns, as it can make them feel more included and safe in the classroom. 

The demonstration was held almost one year after a 2022 protest at the same site, where people called for Board Vice President Jason Jorgensen and Director Al Loma to be reprimanded for social media posts offensive to LGBTQ people. (Jorgensen also suggested the pronoun ban.)

The rally was co-organized by Inside Out Youth Services, a local organization that provides resources and support for LGBTQ young people, and Neighbors For Education, a pro-public education and equity group originally founded by D11 parents. More than 70 people, including NFE leaders, D11 parents and others from neighboring school districts, showed up and said slogans like “Protect trans kids” and “Respect my pronouns.”

As teachers, “we honor the whole child, which includes their gender identity,” says Naomi Lopez, NFE president, who is a speech language pathologist for D11. Her child, who is gender-fluid, is a D11 student.

“We can’t separate a part of their identity because it makes certain adults in leadership uncomfortable, to say, ‘We will educate you, but we will reject a part of who you are,’” Lopez told Sixty35 at the protest. “That creates immense emotional turmoil for students.”

Local LGBTQ activist Joseph Shelton (left) and Moms For Liberty – El Paso County Co-Chair Darcy Schoening (center) get close during the protest and counter-protest of D11's pronoun policy. (Photo by Bryan Oller)

Moms For Liberty – El Paso County, a conservative education activist group whose leaders espouse anti-LGBTQ beliefs, came with about a dozen people to counter-protest, in support of the pronoun ban. 

Moms For Liberty co-chairs Darcy Schoening and Kristy Davis don’t have children in D11 or live in D11, but they showed up for the counter-protest. Some of the M4L protesters identified themselves as grandparents in D11 or in other districts. Their signs said “Stop the pedophile agenda” and “My pronouns are parental rights.” 

“Pronouns are nothing more than indoctrination into the LGBTQ lifestyle, and they’re completely unnecessary. It’s important that we start stepping up and rooting [using pronouns, being transgender] out of our schools, rather than encouraging it. We don’t encourage people to be heroin addicts, we don’t encourage them to be pedophiles, or wife-beaters, or whatever,” Schoening said, referring to practices that are entirely unrelated to asking pronouns. “So I’m not sure why we encourage this.”

Lara Matisek, a D20 parent, came to support LGBTQ students in D11. D20 has also had its share of fireworks over anti-LGBTQ changes suggested by parents. (Photo by Bryan Oller)

Arlo Kaminski, a senior in Academy School District 20, was at the protest to show support for LGBTQ students in D11 and cover it for a journalism class. He said issues in both districts are intertwined — in D20, conservative parents want to ban discussions of LGBTQ identity, gender and sexuality from classrooms and a former teacher recently suggested LGBTQ kids be put in a separate school.

In D11, “they took the idea of targeting queer students and using them as pawns,” said Kaminski, who’s a transgender man.

“We see it as a threat to ourselves of being ourselves at school,” he said of the pronoun policy. “A lot of students are more comfortable saying [their pronouns] out loud with other people around, than going up to their teacher and being like, ‘Hey, I use these pronouns.’”

D11 Security Operations Commander David Allison (center) tries to separate protesters and move them away from the steps of the district administration building. (Photo by Bryan Oller)

The Confrontations

As it came time for the meeting to start, three Colorado Springs Police Department squad cars and officers had arrived at the protest and D11’s security personnel were on high alert, after the two groups clashed physically.

They started on opposite sides of the street outside of the administration building, but M4L moved across the street to where NFE and Inside Out were set up, when a woman told them they were on private property. D11 Security Coordinator
Robert Yslas told Sixty35 that the sidewalk where M4L was standing was public, but the area around and next to it was private — but security personnel would have preferred the group stay separated by the street.

D11 Security Coordinator Robert Yslas tries to separate protesters after a confrontation. (Photo by Bryan Oller)

When M4L crossed the street, the groups clashed. People pushed one another, swatted at each other, grabbed signs and got in each others’ faces. 

Later, at the board meeting, an individual allegedly approached the dais quickly and without permission and was nearly tackled by security, Superintendent Michael Gaal said.

At the end of the board meeting, past 11 p.m., Gaal called the behavior “embarrassing” and compared it to a peaceful demonstration against the pronoun policy organized by students outside the district building on Feb. 28 (although he did say there was vandalism of a district sign during that protest, an issue that’s now being handled by police.)

“What we saw tonight was a blatant disregard by adults for … how we expect to operate professionally,” Gaal said, referencing behavior in the boardroom. “People believe that their point of view is more important than the decorum and protocol that we set up so that everyone’s opinion is valued.

“I will be asking the security team to tighten down these board meetings,” he said. “They have to be safe; they have to be safe for students first.”

Board discussion

The D11 board did not actually discuss the pronoun ban at the March 8 meeting. It’s currently being reviewed by the district’s policy committee, which is made up mostly of school staff, and then will return to the board with the committee’s input. We covered that process here.

Another policy that’s caused uproar in the district — one that dictates how the district can administer student surveys, and particularly those that ask sensitive questions — was discussed last night. Mainly at issue are surveys that ask about topics like students’ mental health, sexual behavior and illegal activity, like drug use. 

It was suggested by Board Director Lauren Nelson that the district require students to get parents’ permission before participating in surveys with those kinds of sensitive questions, instead of the district’s current “opt-out” policy that assumes permission but allows parents to opt out.

El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly wrote to the board on March 8 that this policy change could significantly reduce responses on the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey and “sabotage” public health and youth-focused officials’ understanding of students’ mental health. Read more about the letter here.

But Nelson, President Parth Melpakam, Board Vice President Jason Jorgensen and Director Al Loma held the stance that students shouldn’t be subject to sensitive questions without parental consent. Director Julie Ott fought to continue the “opt-out” standard. The board ended up kicking the discussion further down the road, as it was approaching 11 p.m.

You can watch the discussion and people’s public comments on the survey policy here:

  • Public comments begin around 1 hour, 53 minutes
  • Board discussion begins around 4 hours, 35 minutes

The board also discussed the policy at length, at the beginning of this March 1 work session.

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