Superintendent Colt Gill’s Response to My Open Letter

[This is a response to the open letter I wrote]


Thank you for writing. I both appreciate and think I understand your perspective. Ryan, I’m not where all your open letter may be published, but consider posting my response as well.

First, I’d like to ask that you consider some of the limits of a news article and know that I would be happy to meet discuss this matter with you in detail. As to the limits of a news article…most articles tend to look at incidents in isolation, they do not always consider what has happened in the past and what continues to happen in the coming days and weeks. This is the case with the Register Guard article you referenced. And, while much information may be shared with a reporter, it is ultimately up to the reporter, editors, and publishers to determine what information they will include and what angle they will present. We, ultimately, have little control over the level of detail offered to the reader.

I am very proud of the work we have done in Bethel School District to welcome and respect each student, family member, and staff member. That statement of pride also reflects my bias. Regardless, my heart has been in this work for many years and I’d like to share just a few snippets of our leadership in the area of equity and inclusion:
• I am a charter member of the Oregon Leadership Network, whose purpose is building the capacity of education leaders to sustain research-based equitable practices across Oregon’s P-20 education system to eliminate disparities in student success, the OLN is a statewide network of more than 20 school districts, ESDs, state agencies, professional associations, and here education institutions.
• Bethel is one of just two local districts to employee a full-time equity director who helps to address individual instances of disparity and proactively alter our system to be more inclusive and limit the impacts of implicit bias in our organization and among our staff and the community we serve. Bethel was a pioneer in developing a position of this nature in a school district and has maintained the role for well over a decade. It is our hope that at some point there would be no need for such a position…we are not there yet.
• Bethel was the first district in our area to implement gender inclusive guidelines designed to support students with varying gender identities.
• We require equity and diversity training for all new licensed staff, regular training for all staff, and we are the only district in the area that requires this training to be eligible to substitute within the district. We have also developed equity training specifically designed for educational assistants in our system.
• We have up-to-date bullying, harassment, and cyberbullying polices that were not only recognized as outstanding by the Oregon Safe Schools & Communities Coalition, they were used as models for new legislation that expanded some of our practices across the state of Oregon.
• We are very focused on reinstituting our PBIS systems with a clear focus on equity, inclusion, and restorative justice emphasis in partnership with researchers at the UO.
• We were early developers of pathway systems designed to diversify our staff to better reflect the community we serve and a snapshot of our administrative staffing shows substantial progress toward that goal.
• Bethel has been recognized for its equity work by a variety of organizations, here are a few:
o University of Oregon- Jane Addams Excellence in Equity Education Award
o Blacks in Government- Outstanding Contribution Increasing Equity, Diversity, and Opportunity in our Community
o Oregon Leadership Network- Recognition for Improving Equitable Practice, 10 Year Commitment of Service Award

I apologize for the length of that list, I’m holding myself back from adding more of our work on this front. I feel it is important that this incident, as presented in the media, not act as the sole source of information for one to develop a perspective of Bethel School District. A stain on one’s reputation is not easily cleaned. It is my hope that this is not seen as a defensive response, but rather one that also honors the many years we have in this effort and many people who have given much of their lives to this work, I simply do not want these facts to be overlooked. We realize there is far, far more to do to accomplish our goals of a safe, respectful, and equitable learning community for all, and we plan to continue the work.

One of our goals is to be thoughtful about our work with students and families, so that we don’t inadvertently undermine our own efforts to provide welcoming schools and provide a safe learning environment for all our students, families, and staff. Erika Case, our principal at Meadow View, apologized that we were not explicit with staff regarding the use of staff training documents. The fact is we did not adequately prepare our staff, students, their families, or the community for this conversation to occur in this way. And that failure to create structure, support, and scaffolding set us back in doing the work we need to do to ensure that every child, family member, visitor, and staff member are valued and safe within our system.

I have shared some of this bulleted information with others, including Dr. Pascoe:
• The genderbread person handout includes information that without more in-depth and thoughtful pre-conversation, is not easily understood by all students. Indeed, some adults may find the different terms it presents a bit unclear, especially if new to them.
• At first glance, the genderbread person handout appears to be a simple, easily read one-page descriptor of gender expression, identity, attraction and biological sex. However many agree, these concepts can be quite complex. This handout is used in equity and inclusion training in a number of settings in teacher preservice and inservice programs across the country and is often presented with dialogue and additional resources. In our opinion, the handout is not designed for all ages (at least not without additional scaffolding and materials).
• Additionally, as educators, we also need to be careful that materials with external internet links provided to students are both age appropriate and safe. The handout includes a link to a website that includes non-edited comments from site visitors and some profanity is used in that comment section on the front page of the website. If we deem that current materials within our curriculum are not adequate or as newer and better materials become available, we will seek materials that are age appropriate and safe.
• We do have other posters throughout our school that send a clear message that we welcome and value all students, families, and staff. We do understand that posters alone do not solve the problems our schools and communities face. We are partnering with the UO and others to enhance the student curriculum so that these conversations can be successful across our K-12 system

We will continue to provide age appropriate conversations and learning opportunities for students. We also believe it is important to include the community we serve in the larger conversations so that everyone understands the need to develop systems and curriculum that ensure all our students are valued, welcome, and safe in our schools. This can also mean that parents are notified when such conversations will occur, and like so many opportunities and programs we offer today that they have the ability to opt out. This is a provision that is more and more reinforced by Oregon law. Thankfully Oregon does require instruction on “gender identity, regardless of whether the individual’s gender identity, appearance, expression or behavior differs from that traditionally associated with the individual’s sex at birth” (OAR 581-22-1440 (1) (k)). However, OAR 581-22-1440 (5) also states that “Any parent may request his/her child be excused from that portion of the instructional program…”. As a public school, we are bound by these laws.

And, ultimately, we are owned and operated by the community we serve. We must find ways to work with our community to ensure everyone in our system and community are respected and accepted. I believe it is by bringing people together that we make this important work happen in a sustainable way. Drawning hard lines in the sand generates divisiveness and does not create inclusiveness or change attitudes or practices. Asking those who have been ignored, marginalized, bullied, harassed, or worse to be patient is not fair. But, I do believe real change that is honored, owned, and embraced by the community takes both diligent & relentless work as well as time.

In Dr. Pascoe’s letter which you link below, she shared some alarming statistics:
• 55% of LGBT Students feel unsafe at school because of their sexuality.
• 39% of LGBT students feel unsafe at school because of their gender expression.
• 30% of those students missed one day of school in the past month because they did not feel safe.
• 56% of LGBT students heard negative remarks about gender – that they weren’t acting masculine of feminine enough.
• 30% of these students frequently heard negative remarks about transgender people.

This information is provided by GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey. These statistics are simply not acceptable for a public school system designed to serve every member of our community. I believe that feelings like these can be linked to equally alarming rates of depression and self-harm among those with varied gender identities and expressions. Again, clearly not acceptable. I agree with statements Dr. Heffernan has made that are similar to this, the comfort level of any majority or minority population’s acceptance of difference does not outweigh the safety of any other group of students or single student served in our schools.

So, we will continue to train our staff to better understand the diverse and rich differences our students and families bring to us, how these varied differences are assets that make us stronger as a community, and how we will provide safe and nurturing environments for all students to learn. We will focus on ways to include our community in the dialogue and providing support and scaffolding so that our staff can successfully address all the issues that currently prevent our schools from being the welcoming and safe places they should be for everyone in our community.

Ryan, I hope you reconsider your stance on selecting Bethel as a future employer. I, again, invite you to visit with me or with some of our staff. I think you will find they see us as doing courageous work in the area of equity and inclusion. Finally, please do feel welcome to publish this response alongside your open letter.

Colt Gill
Bethel School District


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