Brittany McLaughlin, parent of a seventh grader at Florence-Carlton Middle School, recently organized a social media group called the Bitterroot Alliance for Diversity and Equality. The group was originally called Bitterroot Alliance Against Hate, but McLaughlin said she didn’t want to include the word “hate” in the group’s name. It’s a Facebook group working to find ways for all people to come together safely. She said she’s hoping to provide a safe, supportive space for LGBTQ+ in the valley.
According to McLaughlin, this is in response to what happened at the May school board meeting in Florence when a group showed up to protest the Gay-Straight Alliance group that was organized in the middle school.
“My daughter and a friend started it to find a safe space for these students,” said McLaughlin. She said her daughter had heard about clubs like this and wanted to start one. She started it at the beginning of the school year. They followed the rules about forming a club and followed the proper steps. The club started to pick up steam and got a new advisor. However, the advisor came across a school policy that was worrisome to her about whether or not this was a formal or informal group, and whether or not parental permission was required. This was brought before the board in April.
“When this all came about, I decided to sit in on this board meeting,” said McLaughlin. “They talked about the policy, but the board tabled it because they felt like they needed more information.”
McLaughlin did a lot of research on her own and found that certain policies were in conflict. “It was frustrating to me because of the nature of the group,” she said. “Would this have even been brought up if this had been a book club or an aeronautics club?”
So she sent an email to school superintendent Brian Rayburn expressing her concerns and suggesting that the school policy was discriminatory. Then she met with Rayburn and he told her they had taken it to their lawyer and would be talking about it at the next board meeting, in May.
McLaughlin begin to hear buzz in the community, “a lot of concern.” She sent a letter to the board asking them not to require permission slips for students to participate in the club. “I requested that the group have the ability to continue to have an advisor. I asked that they don’t disband this group. I stated statistics about the higher rate of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth and how important I thought this was.”
On social media, McLaughlin began to see posts circulating naming her family and others, accusing them of recruiting and indoctrinating children into a secret gay and lesbian club. “They said we were trying to ruin the school” and were urging people to attend the May board meeting in protest.
“My daughter and I got to the May board meeting early,” said McLaughlin. “More and more people started to come in. There were lots of American flags. A prayer circle took place in the parking lot. There was such a big presence that the board felt the need to call law enforcement. The board meeting took about four hours prior to talking about these policies. It was four hours of tension.”
McLaughlin said the superintendent recommended a few changes, nothing to prohibit the group, and the board voted 3-2 to approve on first reading the amended policy on school clubs and allow the group to remain. It will be voted on again in June, with final approval in July. She’s hoping the Gay-Straight Alliance will be considered an informal group, which would mean that no parental permission slips are required.
McLaughlin’s 12-year-old daughter read a prepared statement at the May board meeting.
Here is her statement:
“First off, I would like to thank you for letting me use this time to advocate for the people I love. There are 10,080 minutes in a week. My peers get 30 minutes out of the week to feel accepted. Without even that small amount, their mental health is likely to deteriorate. 40% of LGBTQ+ youth have “seriously considered” suicide in the past year, meaning 4 in 10 children have considered taking their own life. Imagine that one of your children wants to take their own life away because they can’t get the support they need. Gen Z is five times more likely to come out as part of the LGBTQ+ community than millennials, meaning that there are so many more kids in need of this support than there were 30 years ago. I want children who are younger than me to have support so that they don’t have to go through what myself and my peers are going through right now. I want to make Florence-Carlton School a safe place for all. A place where we don’t have to be afraid to dance with who we like at a school dance, a place where we don’t have to have a safety plan just to go to the bathroom. A place that is free of ridicule and hatred for something that we cannot control. Nobody should ever feel like they are unwanted, unloved, and invisible. This unfortunately is the life of some middle school students at Florence-Carlton School. My group strives for equality, no matter your sexual orientation, race, gender identity, etc. I will not stand here and let my friends be silenced. I will not stand here and let the children who come after me be oppressed because people are ignorant. We need to normalize the fact that just because people are different doesn’t mean we are any less important than people who fit in. I have dealt with the feeling of loneliness for all of my life because people are so close-minded, and I refuse to let the people who come after me have to feel like that. Our group is important for people’s mental health, well-being, and overall school environment. For my final statement, I would like to say that you are valid, loved, and valued. Thank you for your time.”
McLaughlin said she believes “this has gotten blown into something huge that I had not anticipated. Lots of hate and disturbing things were said at the board meeting. My daughter felt so unsafe, after giving her comment, she wanted to leave.”
McLaughlin’s Facebook group is approaching 300 members. They are asking people to write letters to the board and superintendent. “We’re trying to find ways to meet. We’d love to see the group become super proactive and maybe become a non profit. The goal is for this group to continue for years and years to come to provide support for these kids.”
She added, “I would never take back that original letter. Even though this was stressful, this is something very volatile in this valley and it needs to be discussed. There are always going to be gay people. How do we make them comfortable? How do we make everyone comfortable? Diversity isn’t just about gays, it’s about blacks and Native Americans, everybody. We want to embrace everyone and make it a more accepting community.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Bitterroot Alliance for Diversity and Equality can contact them by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.