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Gay-straight alliances make progress in School District 20 

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Julia Gentry, a senior at Air Academy High School in Academy School District 20, sits across from me in a noisy café. This self-declared anxious student wears a petticoat and pets a stuffed animal, looking timid. But her advocacy over the past year communicates the exact opposite.

She’s leading her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and petitioning with Eagleview Middle School students to get their own GSA, and recently secured a curricular endorsement for Air Academy’s GSA, meaning it is officially recognized as a group that directly relates to school courses.
Maybe I need a stress puppy, too, to accomplish more with my life.

“Under the Equal Access Act,” Gentry says, “[schools] can’t deny a GSA. But the battle in D-20 right now is taking those non-curricular clubs and making them curricular because non-curricular clubs cannot advertise, which kind of defeats the purpose.” Gentry explains that they weren’t even allowed to have a table at the eighth grade orientation.

“The purpose of the GSA isn’t to say, ‘Hey, come join our club.’ It’s to say, ‘We are here and you have a place in the school,’” she says.

Two weeks after Gentry submitted her club application to the dean, Air Academy’s GSA became curricularly endorsed. But Gentry’s tenacity is not the only reason the process went so smoothly and quickly.

A year and a half before this, Ryan Maikell and 25 other students filled out the same application at Pine Creek High School. But unlike Gentry, their application was denied. It took nearly a year, four appeals and a coalition of Pine Creek alumni and parents to finally get the school’s GSA endorsed as curricular. Maikell says, “teachers had tried to get traction on the GSA becoming curricularly endorsed but had subsequently faced negative reactions from their superiors.” According to Maikell, this had been a battle for years.

Pine Creek’s principal, Kolette Back says the applications were denied because, “At the time of the initial submittal, the application did not directly demonstrate how the group promoted an academic or curricular focus that was in alignment with our courses.” So what changed?

In the wake of the denial, Pine Creek alum Joshua Flanery (my brother) and Pine Creek dad Ryan Pendleton formed their own gay-straight alliance in hopes of appealing Back’s denial. Josh says he wished he’d known there was a safe space for him as a gay student when he attended Pine Creek, but because Pine Creek’s GSA couldn’t advertise, Josh had no clue it even existed. When he went to the front office to ask if he could start one, he says, “they laughed and said, ‘that’s not gonna fly with our parents.’”

Ryan Pendleton has a far simpler but also very beautiful reason. Riding in his pickup truck, I ask him why he decided to join Josh. He says, “My friends needed help. Why wouldn’t I help?” all while wearing a MAGA hat and Trump shirt.

Pine Creek’s GSA application was approved in February 2019.

Tonya Thompson, Academy District 20’s executive director for legal relations, explains the district changed its mind because, “The statement of purpose of the GSA demonstrates that the intended function of the organization is to enhance participants’ educational experience through a system of support.” She adds that the district wants to create a safe learning environment, and that “Messages of respect, tolerance, and inclusion benefit all Academy District 20 students.”

The data, which prove that having a GSA increases feelings of safety in schools, support this decision. And these are not just facts. They’re faces. They’re names. They’re Julia. They’re Ryan and Ryan. They’re Josh. They’re Noah.

Noah Wilder was a gay student at Pine Creek who committed suicide in 2014. He was also a good friend of Josh’s and the main reason Josh fought so hard for the appeal.

“Out of nowhere, I got called into the office and was told that he had killed himself the night before.” Josh gets quiet. “It was a sobering moment of how a possibly unsafe space like in a public education system, that should be safe, doesn’t foster that kind of environment. So I guess I did it for him, in a way. But also for students down the line where they wouldn’t have to feel like they had to take their life because they don’t have a safe space.”

On Jan. 3, former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman released a study showing that deaths by suicide of those between the ages of 10 and 18 have doubled in El Paso County, comparing numbers from 2015-2017 with 2012-2014, and according to the Trevor Project, LGB students are three times as likely as their straight peers to commit suicide, while 40 percent of trans students have reported they’ve attempted at least once before the age of 25.

Thank you, District 20, for hearing your students, parents and faculty. These decisions to create visibility and safety for LGBTQ youth matter.

Editor's note: This column has been updated to correct the year of Noah Wilder's death. We regret the error.

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