Few school districts have fielded the kind of PR shitstorm that got dumped in Willoughby-Eastlake’s lap this fall. When Willoughby South faced off against Eastlake North on the gridiron last month, the district rivals’ fans traded chants featuring festive gay slurs. A video went viral, and action news reporters came knocking. In a classy moment of “kids will be kids” excuse-making, school officials responded to questions by bitching about the bad press.
Now the district has an opportunity to get some good ink for itself and put a progressive foot forward. But it appears they’re not interested.
In the wake of the homo taunting, two people with ties to the schools thought it would be a good time to clarify the district’s stance. Eastlake alum and lawyer Jim Helmink and Eastlake biology teacher Rhonda Kesling asked the board to amend the district’s anti-discrimination policy by including sexual orientation.
Many districts across the region already include gay and lesbian students as a protected group, among them Cleveland, Mentor, Lakewood, and Lorain public schools. Willoughby-Eastlake, however, does not.
But when Helmink and Kesling made their pitch, they got the cold shoulder. Superintendent Keith Miller and board president Margaret Warner refused to even discuss the matter with them, and the district’s lawyer did the same.
Helmink was later told that the district’s lawyer had advised against making the change, despite case law showing that districts that expand such protections do not open themselves up to legal problems.
“If they don’t want to vote on it based on legitimate concerns, that’s one thing,” says Helmink. “But right now they’re just ignoring it.”
It’s been a particularly frustrating ordeal for Kesling, a 26-year veteran of the district who was originally blackballed by the board in 2007 over the same proposed change. “It’s adding two words. What can it hurt?” she says. “Two words that will protect our students.” Multiple calls to Miller and Warner were not returned. — Kyle Swenson