Middle school sexual orientation survey rankles parents

JACKSON — When some Jackson Hole Middle School students powered on their tablets one day in October, they found a survey with a pointed, personal question.

It asked about their sexual orientation, whether they were gay, straight, didn’t know or didn’t want to say.

The query was part of a questionnaire that sought information on the need for a gay-straight alliance or similar school club at the middle school, as well as other support for LGBTQ students. But some parents say the survey, which they didn’t know about before it went out, wasn’t OK.

“It’s inappropriate to ask those kids. That’s a home issue,” parent Mike Mielke said. “If they wanted to do that, they should have at a minimum told us about it.”

Students take surveys on their school-issued iPads all the time, Principal Matt Hoelscher said.

The same day the sexual orientation survey went out, some kids took one that asked what they wanted to see in the school store.

Because of the ubiquity of the surveys, which teachers often give during flex periods, Hoelscher doesn’t see every single one before they are disseminated to students, he said. When he discovered the survey had gone out, however, he pulled it.

“I felt there was a better way to solicit information,” Hoelscher said. “Any time we talk about issues that might be sensitive or personal we have to think about how we are going to collect that information.”

The survey originated in the middle school’s counseling office, Hoelscher said, as part of an “effort to reach out and identify students that are marginalized.”

Following a request for an interview with the authors of the survey, District Information Coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said the counselors did not want to comment.

Hoelscher feels sensitive topics like sexual orientation should be better left to individual interactions with teachers and counselors, something parents agreed with.

“The counselors are the safest anonymous places for students,” parent Serese Kudar said. “If we can educate them that they can go to counselors with everything, we are doing our job.”

After students went home and told their parents about the survey, many parents contacted Hoelscher to voice their concerns about it. Some called, some wrote emails, several met with him in person.

Most were upset with the process by which the information was sought and with not being informed, rather than the substance of the sexual orientation issue. Some did say the topic shouldn’t be the school’s purview.

Kudar said the school’s response was appropriate and quick.

“When we immediately brought our concerns to Matt, he was very responsive,” she said. “He worked directly and closely with the counselor, and followed through with our suggestions.”

The survey asked students whether they would be interested in a LGBTQ club, though the News&Guide was unable to confirm what the spate of questions entailed because Reynolds was unable to provide a copy of it Tuesday.

Jackson Hole High School has a Gay-Straight Alliance, a school club that provides support and a space for LGBTQ students and allies.

Reynolds said the teachers involved with the Gay-Straight Alliance at the high school “declined to comment” on the club and the support it offered students.

According to Wyoming Equality, a nonprofit that oversees the Wyoming Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the clubs advocate for inclusive policies and provide spaces where all students are welcome.

The network keeps a tally of gay-straight alliances in Wyoming, which can be found in high schools around the state, and it helps school districts create new ones. It can assist schools in registering new alliances and offer suggestions on the best ways to gauge student interest.

Executive Director Sara Burlingame, a Democratic state representative from Laramie County, said the middle school’s survey may not have been needed.

“It probably didn’t occur to them it’s not necessary to ask that to establish a gay-straight alliance,” she said.

“One of the great things about a GSA is that it’s not asking students to identify.”

She said directly asking about middle school students’ sexual orientation can put undue pressure on them when they are still questioning and exploring their individuality. The alliances Wyoming Equality helps are more about providing a space for kids to determine their identities — whether as LGBTQ people or allies.

Some high school alliances are politically active, like one in Cheyenne that Burlingame pointed to that, as part of the WyoSayNo initiative, opposes the proposed Uinta County Immigration Prison.

Though school district officials didn’t provide much information on the Jackson Hole High School alliance, Burlingame said a gay-straight alliance at the middle school likely would have been centered on providing social-emotional support.

“Middle school can be such a pressure chamber,” she said, “and just having a space that offers support and validation is important.”

Judging by parent and administrator reaction, the formation of such a club may not be imminent.

Hoelscher said he hopes staff at his school are tolerant and give students the impression that they can approach them individually with personal topics such as sexual orientation, which could preempt the need for an alliance or similar club.

And at least some parents want the school to focus on other aspects of students’ development.

“Kids are supposed to be learning respect for each other, property and themselves,” Kudar said.