|Seth Stambaugh & his Infamous Cardigan Sweater|
But the incident’s price tag might seem a bargain if an even more valuable lesson has been learned by school district administrators, a local newspaper suggested.
Stambaugh, 23, was just starting his career as an educator at Sexton Mountain Elementary school in the town of Beaverton, Ore., a town seven miles west of Portland, when he was abruptly taken out of the school where he’d started after answering questions from one his fourth-grade students, reported local news station KGW on Oct. 18, 2010.
Stambaugh was sent to teach at a school in Portland, outside of the Beaverton School District. The student teacher’s advisers at Lewis & Clark College were reportedly asked by the school district to pull Stambaugh out of Sexton Mountain Elementary and send him elsewhere.
"The student asked me if I was married," Stambaugh told the news station. "I responded, ’No.’ He asked, ’Why?’ I said it was illegal for me to get married. I said, ’It’s because I want to marry a man.’ "
Stambaugh was reassigned shortly after that Sept. 10 conversation, and though he was not initially told why, he was pretty confident about the reason from the start. "I felt extremely hurt and discriminated against," Stambaugh told KGW. "Everyone in the school is free to talk about their marital status as long as they are heterosexual."
The head of the Beaverton Education Association, David Wilkinson, agreed. "As a heterosexual male, I can talk about my wife and our children," Wilkinson told the Portland Tribune. "Our GLBT members have been shown that they are not at liberty to discuss their personal lives in the same way."
Added Wilkinson, "I have been contacted by many teachers who are deeply concerned about their vulnerability in light of this incident... [which] has brought a bright light to the lack of clarity around what is allegedly age-appropriate or reasonable to discuss with students."
A statement from the Beaverton School District seemed to confirm that his disclosure to the student was the cause of Stambaugh’s dismissal from Sexton Mountain Elementary. "We understand this action has resulted in the student teacher alleging discrimination," the school district’s statement said. "The concerns were about professional judgment and age appropriateness. While the details of this issue remain confidential, the district’s policy and practice is non-discrimination."
Student teachers are not employees of the school district, but rather are interns. As such, they are not protected by district non-discrimination policies or by state laws regarding discrimination in the workplace.
"I think that 4th graders know that gays exist," Stambaugh said. "They hear it on the playgrounds. To say this guy, meaning me, came out and should disappear sends a negative [message] to a gay child who could be questioning their own sexuality."
At least some parents agreed. "I don’t think anybody should be fired for giving a well though-out articulate answer to a kids’ question," said one father, Mike Speer. However, other parents seem to have had reservations about the fact that gays exist being acknowledged in a fourth-grade classroom; it was a parent’s complaint that triggered Stambaugh’s dismissal, media sources said.
The same parent lodged a prior complaint about the student teacher’s "inappropriate" manner of dress, "which consisted of cardigan sweaters, neatly pressed slacks and bow ties," noted Oregon Live educator and guest columnist Marcia Klotz in an Oct. 17, 2010, op-ed. "We all know what kind of people dress like that," added Klotz.
"Are 9-year-olds mature enough to understand the issue of same-sex marriage?" Klotz, Portland State University assistant professor of English, wondered. "Maybe, maybe not. But if they are old enough to worry their parents about their exposure to the rather subtle fashion clues of a bow tie and cardigan, they must be quite savvy indeed."
Klotz went on to question whether lying to the student would have been morally preferable. "This might all seem rather silly if the stakes weren’t so high,’ she wrote. "Sexual shame kills, as the recent rash of lesbian and gay suicides across the country attests. Imagine a child in that class, one who may not have a name yet for certain stirrings he is dimly becoming aware of, which already shame and humiliate him. What might it mean for such a child, a few years down the road, to look back on that teacher, who was brave enough to answer honestly when the students put their curious question to him?
"And what does it mean when that very teacher is taken out of the class--for the crime of not being ashamed enough?" Klotz added.
That question may be behind the snowballing of the incident, which quickly became a full-blown controversy that rattled the school district. But the district’s superintendent, Jerry Colonna, turned the controversy into a learning moment, reported Oregon Live on Oct. 14. Colonna took several days to speak with and listen to people from the GLBT community, community religious leaders, parents, and GLBTs working in the district’s schools. In the end, he reached a conclusion: "There is a need to repair relationships, rebuild trust, learn from the issue and listen."
Added Colonna, "As we have talked to individuals involved in this, especially those who are sexual minorities, we have found that there are many incidents in which they feel the district has not responded to their needs so they feel safe and respected. This is also true of students."
There are guidelines for how student teachers are supposed to handle students’ questions about their personal lives, but, "There is no line in the sand of here are the following tips you need in having this conversation," said Jodi Heintz, who directs the college’s PR.
"We want teachers to be fully present as humans to their students," the dean of Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Scott Fletcher, told the Portland Tribune. "We expect the kind of relationship that can motivate the students to be their best, to inspire them."
"Unfortunately, it is still the case that some people view [being gay] as being inappropriate somehow," said another dean of an educational program, Randy Hitz, of the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University. When a teacher is straight, such interactions are not problematic; however, for a gay teacher, "it gets complicated," said Hitz. "You don’t flaunt it."
Said Fletcher, "It’s simply a fact that there are schools in which the circumstances don’t allow teachers to be out."
That apparent double standard is something that might be addressed as the school district reexamines its policies. "We want to look at the incident as greater than one person in one classroom having one discussion," said Colonna, going on to note that the abrupt manner in which the incident was handled may not have been the best approach. "The opportunity to sit down and discuss the item with the student teacher, Lewis & Clark, human resources staff and the principal, before any action had been taken or decisions made, would have been helpful."
The terms of the settlement allowed Stambaugh and the school district to avoid litigation. The school district also agreed to train school personnel about GLBT issues and to review school policies with an eye to ensuring that they were "inclusive in scope," the Beaverton Valley Times reported.
A Feb. 16 op-ed at the newspaper praised the school district’s leadership and expressed the view that the imbroglio, while "embarrassing," had led to a positive result.
"Under the leadership of Superintendent Jerry Colonna, the Beaverton district and its administrators have more fully embraced challenge and differences than ever before," the newspaper’s editorial read. "We suspect that this embarrassing and costly dispute is a reminder for all to not quickly judge or react. And this case is a reminder to the school district staff, students and the public that diversity and appropriately managed differences of opinion are a moral, educational and community standard welcomed in Beaverton."
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.