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Steve Joel

Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel

Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel pushed back Thursday against what he said was misinformed reaction to the district’s gender identity training by national commentators and news outlets.

“It’s indeed regrettable that for the last week and a half we’ve had to dedicate as much staff time and resources to address an issue that is not founded in fact,” he said at a news conference.

“Never once has anyone inside our system mandated that a teacher take (the words) ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’ out of their interactions with children or interaction with adults. There’s no policy, there’s no procedure, there’s no changes being made to bathrooms in schools.”

Fox News and other national outlets picked up on local news reports about the district’s gender identity training, specifically handouts used with teachers at Irving Middle School that included one from the nonprofit organization Gender Spectrum entitled “12 easy steps to gender inclusiveness.”

Among the advice in the handout was to avoid gendered terms like "girls" and "boys" and opt for gender neutral terms such as “campers” or come up with group names like “purple penguins,” a term on which national media outlets have focused.

Joel said the handouts were suggestions and strategies, not mandates, about how teachers could reach all students in their classrooms. The training occurred at the request of an Irving teacher looking for guidance dealing with students.

“This was about adults, professional educators, who care deeply about trying to reach and establish relationships with children,” Joel said. “They are looking for strategies about how to be more effective in the classroom.”

He said he was proud of teachers and principals for not being afraid to ask those questions.

A teacher who was apparently uncomfortable with the handouts distributed them to someone in the community, Joel said.

A parent of students at Irving and Southeast High School distributed emails with the handouts, asking parents to join her at the Oct. 14 school board meeting to express their concerns.

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During administrative leadership days prior to the beginning of the school year, LPS officials shared several recent news stories about transgender persons to help administrators better understand the issues that face some students, so they feel comfortable and welcome at school.

The staff development at Irving occurred after school started.

LPS sent an electronic message home to parents reiterating the message from the news conference.

At that news conference, Joel said, the district was happy to answer parents' questions but would not spend more time with people around country choosing to react to something not grounded in fact.

Despite the backlash, Joel said, LPS will not stop efforts to reach all students, including those who are gender non-conforming or transgender. The district works with all kinds of students -- those who live in poverty, who come from all over the world -- and learning how best to reach them will be instrumental in raising the district’s graduation rate from 87 percent to 90 percent, he said.

“We’re not going to back away from educating ourselves on what it takes to be effective with children,” he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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