The “Columbia Values Diversity” celebration was the first topic addressed at Tuesday’s forum for Columbia School Board candidates.
All six candidates — April Ferrao, James Gordon, John Lyman, John Potter, Paul Harper and current board Vice President Chris Horn — were present at the event sponsored by Columbia Board of Realtors.
There are three open seats on the board in the April 4 election. This was the first forum of the campaign season.
David Lile, a former KFRU radio personality, moderated the event and began by asking candidates what their “reactions to the reactions from the performance” at the diversity celebration were.
The diversity celebration was held last Thursday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Nclusion Plus, an LGBTQIA+ education and performance group in Columbia, put on what it called a G-rated, 20-minute drag show.
In response to the celebration, public officials including Gov. Mike Parson condemned the district and the city. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey wants Columbia Public Schools officials dismissed for allowing students to attend a drag show, according to an email from Bailey spokesperson *Madeline Sieren.
Ferrao said she understood parents' concerns. She said the district should have further explained to parents what the diversity celebration entailed.
“Once parents started questioning, I think it was also poorly handled,” Ferrao said. “I think there could have been more transparency and more forthrightness.”
“Drag does not hurt kids," Gordon said. "Transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, all of these things are things that can hurt our kids.”
He said that kids need to be asked how they felt about the experience and that when the diversity celebration happened, he set social media aside and was present with his children.
Harper said people are using the diversity celebration to advance their own agendas.
He said the board needs to support LGBT families and events such as the diversity breakfast because they show LGBT students and students from marginalized groups that they matter.
“To our LGBT students, our families and our parents, I want to say I see you, and I hear you,” Harper said.
Horn said that it was self-inflicted destruction and that there were two core issues: communication and a lack of desire to work collaboratively with parents.
Horn said that the district should have responded with more humility and that it is important to acknowledge when communication could be better.
Lyman’s son attended the diversity celebration. He said he was happy his son attended the event and they had a “good conversation on the ride home” and “a good conversation at dinner.”
Lyman said that if elected, he would make sure permission slips listed who’s going to be at events and what the events include. He acknowledged that “all contingencies” can’t be included but that letting parents know what is happening is important.
Potter concluded the discussion of the diversity celebration, saying he “might be part of the reaction to the reaction.” He wants the district to be prepared for school shootings, and he wants the district to be transparent about where it stands on “men wearing G-strings in front of children” and drag story hours.
“I think it’s very important that we address these issues now and not wait for it to happen in our district and then try to clean up the mess afterward,” he said.
The Parents Bill of Rights, which refers to a series of bills passed in the Missouri Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, was also addressed at the forum. The bills focus on giving parents more access to their children’s education.
None of the candidates outwardly supported the bill. Horn said he doesn’t want to make jobs harder for teachers and administration, Lyman said parents shouldn’t make decisions on curriculum. Ferrao said she thinks this would increase the recruitment and retention problem the district already faces.
Potter said he wasn’t too familiar with the bill and is overall against it. Gordon said laws written by people who aren’t part of the district will not enhance a culture of trust. Harper said that he’s always been able to talk to teachers about curriculum and that he believes the bills are about outsiders trying to influence the district.