Grain Valley ‘listening session’ well-received following LGBTQ controversy

Published: Jun. 1, 2022 at 9:54 PM CDT
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GRAIN VALLEY, Mo. (KCTV) - Wednesday night, Grain Valley Schools took a step toward improving and healing more than a month after controversy erupted over LGBTQ Safe Space signs.

On April 25, the district told teachers and staff to remove certain Safe Space signs from their walls and windows. The signs are made by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national organization.

After a firestorm erupted on social media, the district announced listening sessions would take place and began the process of securing a contract with an outside firm to conduct the sessions.

“This is really important work tonight,” Deputy Superintendent Brad Welle told the 100-plus participants Wednesday.

Participants were separated into tables with six to eight people each, staffed by trained facilitators.

There were specific rules about confidentiality and how to communicate with others. Things like: Not criticizing, listening to understand, and not listening to respond.

“This is not about debating and changing people’s minds,” instructed Susan Brott with CESO Communications. “This is about listening to each other and trying to figure out what we can do to make sure that Grain Valley Schools is, and continues to be, a welcoming and inclusive space for all students.”

CESO stands for the Center for Effective School Operations.

Welle said the district routinely does surveys and focus groups for feedback on student experience, but those were done internally. This time, the administration thought it was worth the expense to hire an outside firm with expertise on such things.

“Emotions were running pretty high and the outcome of this process is so important to us,” Welle explained. “We just felt like we could increase the credibility by having a third party come in.”

The open-ended discussion questions touched on topics beyond the Safe Space signs.

Welle said the controversy is what sparked the district to hold the workshop, but the project extends beyond that. With so much interest at the moment, and with money already being spent on a firm, he said it was a great opportunity to get a wider range of input and expert interpretation on all kinds of things impacting student experience and belonging.

“They need to be engaged in their classroom conversations and teenagers, if they’re not comfortable with who’s sitting around them in the classroom or they feel like they’re going to be teased, they’re not going to engage in the learning in the way that we want them to be engaged,” said Welle.

KCTV5 left the room after the initial presentation so that participants could speak freely. Those willing to chat about the experience afterward all said they were impressed by the format and facilitation.

“It went well,” said 8th-grader Michi Diaz, who identifies as LGBTQ. “I really liked seeing other peoples’ point of view.”

He said several people at his table were unaware of some of the challenges he faced and received his remarks with open minds.

His mother was also pleased.

“I think it was a very productive format,” said Cindy Kirby-Diaz. “They actually were able to listen and get different opinions. They seemed to be responsive and for them to even put something like this on, to listen to the community, I think was an important step in the right direction.”

Melissa Rirordan has two elementary school students in the district. She said she came out of it with a commitment to be more patient.

“100% better than social media,” she remarked enthusiastically. “Everybody needs to just sit down with people, look them in the eye, have a conversation.”

“I think if we do more of these, we can all kind of get - I don’t if I can say ‘on the same page’ because there are a lot of different perspectives - but it’s such a respectful forum to talk about that, that if we do it more I think we could all come together a little bit more,” Rirordan added.

CESO Communications conducted surveys with high school and middle school students a week prior to the workshop and held focus groups with them just a few days before. They’ll have the results compiled and sent to the district and the school board later this summer.

Welle says he hopes the results of the session will inform decisions about the stickers and many other things for next school year and years to come.

Previous coverage:

Grain Valley rally shows support to LGBTQ students amid school district controversy

Grain Valley Schools to host listening sessions on LGBTQ ‘safe space for all’ signs

Grain Valley School Board has stickers removed that indicated safe space for LGBTQ students