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The school year at MacArthur High in Irving, Texas, began last fall with the administration scraping off rainbow stickers that had been posted on campus, prompting hundreds of students to walk out in protest. Seven months later, LGBTQ students say things have deteriorated further.
One faculty sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance is facing having her contract terminated, another is preparing to resign, and a third has been removed from the classroom. The alliance’s weekly meetings became monthly, and attendance dropped from about 40 students to fewer than 10. The student newspaper has functionally shut down. Two teachers said that the school’s principal asked teachers to take down gay pride flags in their classrooms and offices.
Several students said that either they or their classmates have been called homophobic slurs and bullied, and school staff members have failed to intervene. Some said they’re discouraged by the Irving Independent School District’s response to the concerns they’ve raised through the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and school board meetings, and they feel less safe at school than they did a year ago. Two students said human resources officers with the district questioned them about their involvement with the GSA.
“It feels like a target was put on us,” said Adaiah Knight, a junior who identifies as gender-fluid and nonbinary and who said students have harassed them. (Knight uses they/them pronouns.)
LGBTQ students and teachers in the district said they’ve already been on edge because of the pressure schools across Texas and beyond are facing from politicians, parents and activists to remove books with LGBTQ themes. They’re also deeply worried about a state order calling for child abuse investigations into the families of transgender children, which was temporarily blocked by a judge.
Nationwide, educators have raised concerns that new measures, such as a Florida law that prevents teachers from discussing sexual orientation in third grade or lower, could lead to a purge of LGBTQ teachers. And advocates for LGBTQ students are alarmed by some parents’ recent demands that schools prohibit students from organizing Gay-Straight Alliances, calling them “pornographic” and suggesting they would turn children gay.
The clash at MacArthur, in a suburb northwest of Dallas, was not the result of a new law or policy, or a public pressure campaign at school board meetings. But the series of events has still left LGBTQ students feeling a new level of insecurity, and some teachers in need of a new job.
“It’s like they’re being shadow-banned,” Christine Latin, one of five faculty sponsors of the GSA at MacArthur, said of the student group. Latin, a dance instructor, said she plans to resign after this school year over the district’s handling of the issue.
“They’re not going to come out outright and say, ‘Don’t say gay,’” she said of the school administration, “but they’re going to make it as difficult as possible for you to be allowed to express yourself or even learn about how you feel, who you are and your identity.”
It all started with teachers posting small rainbow stickers — long a symbol of the gay pride movement — outside their classrooms to show students that they were LGBTQ allies. In August, the administration required that all the stickers come down, later explaining in a statement to NBC News that decorations in classrooms, hallways or offices must be “curriculum driven and neutral in viewpoint” to “ensure that all students feel safe regardless of background or identity.”
“The damage that was done by scraping them down was far worse than just never having them in the first place,” said Rachel Stonecipher, an English and journalism teacher, and another of the GSA sponsors, who was placed on administrative leave in September and barred from communicating with teachers or students.
Stonecipher, who also advised the student newspaper, believes she was removed because she has been outspoken in advocating for LGBTQ children and encouraging journalism students to investigate the sticker removal. According to her personnel file, which Stonecipher shared with NBC News, the district’s human resources office believed that Stonecipher had called MacArthur’s principal “homophobic,” which Stonecipher denies, and that she made colleagues uncomfortable when she shared her opinion about LGBTQ issues. Last month, she was notified that the district plans to terminate her contract.
“Ultimately, those same things that made us very strong supporters for the LGBTQ students are the things that got us pulled from school,” Stonecipher said of her case and another teacher who has also been removed.
The district declined to comment on Stonecipher’s situation or other personnel matters. In a statement, the district said that it does not retaliate against employees for expressing their personal viewpoints but district policy “prohibits teachers from using the classroom to transmit their personal beliefs.”
“The damage that was done by scraping them down was far worse than just never having them in the first place.”
Rachel Stonecipher, English teacher
The district strives to “provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for every student, employee and family,” the statement said. The statement acknowledged “that rainbow stickers were put up by teachers with the intent of making students feel safe and supported,” but added: “Labeling certain classrooms as safe havens for certain groups could communicate to students who do not see themselves reflected in that classroom’s decorations that they are unwanted or unsafe in those rooms.” The district has not cited any examples of students reporting that the rainbow stickers made them uncomfortable.
At emotional school board meetings, GSA members pleaded with the district to drop the prohibition on rainbow stickers. One student came out as bisexual while addressing the board, while another came out as transgender.
But at the most recent meeting of school trustees on March 21, after a GSA faculty sponsor described being sent to a religious conversion therapy camp as a child, the trustees voted unanimously to block the stickers from returning.
“These stickers are part of a personal agenda,” Dennis Eichelbaum, an attorney for the district, said at the meeting. “They’re giving the wrong impression — they may be endangering students.”
The chair of the school board, and the board trustee who made the motion to block the stickers, did not respond to requests for comment.
LGBTQ advocates in Texas say the district and board members have failed to grasp the message their decision sends to children who are struggling.
“You’re pulling away something that they viewed as a safety net, which is, to me, cruel and insensitive,” said Leslie McMurray, transgender education and advocacy associate at the Resource Center, a Dallas LGBTQ group. “To me, there’s not a single person on that board that understands LGBTQ students, or they would have said, ‘Hey, this isn’t just a sticker. This isn’t about the sticker. This is about safety.’”
Teachers pulled from class
Last school year, the MacArthur GSA held weekly meetings in which teachers led discussions about how laws affect LGBTQ people, and how to talk about their identity. Dozens of students attended, said Latin, one of the faculty sponsors.
“The goal for this club really was about education and inclusivity, and making sure that people knew that they deserve the respect of others, just as much as their straight counterparts,” she said.
Years of academic research show that having a GSA — which can also stand for Gender and Sexuality Alliance — is associated with a decrease in bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students, and an improvement in academic outcomes and a sense of safety for teens. LGBTQ students are “some of the most bullied and harassed students nationwide — certainly in the state of Texas,” McMurray said, pointing to surveys showing a majority of LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school.
MacArthur’s GSA offered small circular rainbow stickers to teachers last school year to post on their classroom doors as a sign that they supported LGBTQ students and felt equipped to talk to them if they were having a rough day, or just needed a moment to decompress.
When the academic year began in late August, students immediately noticed the dozens of ally stickers were gone. The faculty sponsors had no idea what happened, so all five, along with two other supportive teachers, signed a letter asking for an explanation from the principal. They sent it from Stonecipher’s email as a “reply-all” to a staff memo.
District officials told GSA faculty sponsors during a meeting that another teacher had complained about the stickers, saying that placing them on some classroom doors sent a message that other classrooms were not a safe space for LGBTQ students, according to a recording of the meeting made by an attendee.
On Sept. 14, the GSA sponsors filed a complaint with the district over the sticker ban. Stonecipher said she was pulled from her classroom two days later, and another sponsor, Zobaria Shah, was removed on Sept. 21. When contacted by NBC News, Shah said she could not discuss her employment status.
“We’ve been trying to fight this fight for basic human rights and just wanting to be respected, and wanting to have a sense of safety at our school,” Knight, 16, said. “Because whether the administrators want to believe it or not, there are kids who bully other kids for being gay. There are kids who go around constantly calling kids slurs.”
The Irving school district has faced criticism in the past over its treatment of students from marginalized communities.
In 2015, Ahmed Mohamed, then 14, was arrested at MacArthur based on the suspicion that he had a hoax bomb; it was actually a digital clock that he had reconstructed. The school also suspended him, with a spokeswoman saying that even though the clock was not dangerous, it was inappropriate for school. Mohamed, who is Muslim, sued the district alleging racial and religious discrimination. A federal judge later tossed the suit.
In 2018, the district faced criticism from LGBTQ organizations when a teacher reported that the district banned “Love Is Love,” a comic book created to support survivors of the mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, following a complaint that the book featured “extreme homosexuality.” Readers have noted that it has no sexually explicit content.
Students ‘interrogated’ about GSA
Two weeks after the Sept. 22 student walkout, Natasha Stewart, MacArthur’s principal, attended a GSA meeting. She told students that the stickers had to come down because the school must be “viewpoint neutral,” according to two recordings of the meeting shared by attendees.
During the meeting, students described instances in which they’d been called homophobic slurs and been punched by classmates.
Stewart encouraged students to report harassment, and said such bullying would not happen under her watch. Students had called for Stewart’s resignation, and she said it bothered her that they felt she was biased against them. She told the students that some of her best friends were gay or bi, and that she had a transgender relative.
“My job is to come here and make this really a safe space for everybody,” she said, according to the recording.
But the problems have persisted, students said. Knight said a student tried to rip a pride pin off their backpack this year and called them a slur. Transgender students said teachers and administrators regularly call them by the name they used before they transitioned. GSA posters have been torn down, students said.
“It just felt very targeted towards people I knew, like they were trying to get teachers or students in trouble.”
Aly Harbin, MacArthur High School sophomore
According to Victor Fausto, the GSA’s president, the infrequent meetings draw just five to 10 students. The remaining GSA faculty sponsors are no longer allowed by the administration to participate in club meetings, Latin said. School-issued computers block the website for the national GSA Network, along with several other LGBTQ advocacy organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, GLSEN and The Trevor Project, despite multiple requests from staff to allow access.
And soon after Stonecipher and Shah were removed from their classrooms, two students who were GSA members said they were pulled into meetings with three officials from the district’s human resources department, without a parent, where they were “interrogated” about the GSA.
“They’re just kind of questioning me: ‘Are you in the GSA?’ ‘Do you identify as LGBTQ?’ ‘Have you heard of the issues with any teachers?’ ‘Have you heard of the pride sticker issues?’ ‘How do you feel about the administration?’” said a transgender student, a sophomore whom NBC News is not identifying because they have not come out to their parents. “And anytime I wanted to not answer a question, they kept pushing and made it seem like I had to answer the question.”
The transgender student said district officials told them not to tell anyone about the meeting, which caused them to have a panic attack.
“It just felt very targeted towards people I knew, like they were trying to get teachers or students in trouble,” said Aly Harbin, a sophomore and GSA member, who was also called in for a meeting with HR officers.
The district did not respond to questions about these meetings.
‘We’re kind of broken apart now’
Last fall, Stonecipher had been teaching nearly 40 journalism students at MacArthur how to put together a new school newspaper. The sticker removal was one of the first news stories the students began looking into, said Elle Caldon, a junior who was set to be the editor-in-chief.
After Stonecipher was removed, the class became a study hall for a couple of weeks, and then the students were given English assignments. Caldon said the administration has not allowed students to print an issue of the newspaper, and while they’ve been approved to publish music and movie reviews online, they’re barred from writing about the conflict over the GSA sponsors.
“We’re kind of broken apart now that she’s gone,” Caldon said, referring to Stonecipher.
The district did not respond to questions about the student newspaper.
The March 21 school board meeting, in which the trustees upheld the rainbow sticker ban, left Latin demoralized, she said. She and the other GSA sponsors had tried to use the proper channels, she said, but no one in the district leadership listened. She decided to resign at the end of the school year.
“I feel like staying is being complicit and accepting their actions and leadership, and I just can’t accept it,” she said. “It goes against every bit of who I am to my core. I teach my kids to stand up for what they believe in, and so this is kind of just an ultimate show of doing that.”
Three days after the meeting, the district notified Stonecipher that it planned to terminate her contract at the end of the school year. She said she plans to move to higher education for work.
“I don’t want to leave K-12 education, because I care,” she said. “But it’s people like me who leave K-12 education because they care.”