Some Montgomery County Public School staff say the district lacks willingness to more vocally support its LGBTQ-inclusive policies in the face of backlash. The school district recently revised its policy regarding the use of LGBTQ+ inclusive books in schools, saying families should not expect to receive prior alert when their student engages with these materials.
“It feels like they want credit for having a policy, but when things get tough, they don’t want to stand up for it,” MCPS middle school teacher Lane Cogdill said. “That sends a message to me as a transgender educator and to transgender students about how willing MCPS is to stand up for us when it’s hard.”
In January, the district added six new LGBTQ+ inclusive books to its supplemental curriculum for pre-K through fifth grade, with one new book for each grade level. Parent advocates lauded the effort as being “hugely impactful” for students and staff.
Others spoke out against the books. Laurie Halverson is the current president of the Montgomery County Federation of Republican Women and mother of two MCPS graduates, now 26 and 23. Halverson said she believes parents should be notified whenever children are read anything of a sexual nature in school and said that includes LGBTQ+ books. She said she’s read portions of some of the new books and has concerns about their messaging.
“If we just teach kids that you should be kind to all people and that we’re all individuals with unique qualities—if that’s the message, great,” she said. “But I feel like some of these books are trying to mold children to think a certain way.”
On March 24, MCPS released a “revised message” regarding the use of LGBTQ+ inclusive books. According to the new guidance:
“MCPS expects all classrooms to be inclusive and safe spaces for students, including those who identify as LGBTQ+ or have family members in the LGBTQ+ community. […] Therefore, as with all curriculum resources, there is an expectation that teachers utilize these inclusive lessons and texts with all students.”
The message continued:
“Students and families may not choose to opt out of engaging with any instructional materials, other than ‘Family Life and Human Sexuality Unit of Instruction,’ which is specifically permitted by Maryland law. As such, teachers will not send home letters to inform families when inclusive books are read in the future.”
A member of right-wing conservative group Moms for Liberty told the Board of Education it was “pushing ideas of gender ideology” on children and “indoctrinating” them during a January board meeting.
Board member Lynne Harris said the comments “disturb me personally,” adding, “Transgender, LGBTQ+ individuals are not an ideology. They’re a reality.”
After a video of a Bells Mill Elementary teacher reading one of the new books in class went viral in February on an anti-LGBTQ Twitter account, the school received an inundation of hate mail and threats from across the country. In response, the school locked its Twitter account and switched a parent-teacher meeting to virtual due to safety concerns.
When asked whether MCPS had received requests from parents asking for prior notice to be given before an inclusive book is read to their student, school spokesperson Jessica Baxter declined to comment, writing, “Our message in the Thursday message is our statement.”
Baxter said when the new books were introduced, there was discussion about including an opt-out component for families where notification would be provided by the teacher a few days prior to using one of the new books.
“This has been examined more closely to align with our ACA, Nondiscrimination, Equity and Cultural Proficiency Policy,” she wrote. “As a result, we shifted the guidance to no longer allowing an opt out of any instructional materials by families.”
Gretchen Gilmore is a junior at Wootton High School and vocal LGBTQ+ student advocate within MCPS. She said she’s worked closely with “amazing, caring” MCPS staff members to create more inclusive policies and school culture, but added that there’s still a lot more work to be done.
“With everything that’s been going on in our country lately, queer students and teachers alike have good reason to feel anxious,” she said. “I think it’s going to take an undeniably affirming culture in our schools and school system to help alleviate that feeling, and I think that’s what we should be focusing on.”
However, some teachers are experiencing backlash for speaking publicly about MCPS’ inclusive policies and say the district has been unwilling to support them in doing so.
Cogdill teaches at Silver Spring International Middle School (SSIMS) and uses xe/xem pronouns. Recently, Cogdill was the subject of a series of articles by Fox News reporter Hannah Grossman taking aim at the teacher for posting TikToks in 2021 talking about how xe doesn’t disclose students’ gender identities to parents without permission—in accordance with MCPS policy.
Because of the articles, Cogdill and SSIMS have received an inundation of hate mail and threats from around the country, according to Cogdill and MCPS.
“I’m still getting hate mail and comments today—even text messages. It started to get really concerning,” Cogdill said. “People found my Facebook page. They found my partner’s page. I get hateful emails on my MCPS email address. A lot of calls have been coming into the principal and the school office, too.”
Cogdill said the influx of hate directed at xem has taken a “serious toll on my mental health,” adding, “It’s been difficult because so many of the comments have been so hateful and so extreme that I wouldn’t even be able to repeat them.”
While Cogdill said everyone at SSIMS has been “understanding and kind,” the district has declined to make a statement in support of the teacher or clarifying its policy.
When asked whether MCPS would comment on the articles, Baxter responded: “No.”
Baxter told MoCo360 she checked with SSIMS Principal Karen Bryant, who told her the school has not received any complaints about Cogdill from the parent community, but that there has been “a fair amount of email from folks across the country.”
Grossman has written multiple articles in a similar vein targeting teachers across the country for using their TikTok accounts to speak about antiracism, capitalism and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. In March, North Bethesda Middle School teacher Rebecca Rothstein appeared in an article by Grossman describing her as a “Marxist teacher” advocating for “violent revolution.”
MoCo360 made unsuccessful attempts to reach Grossman and Rothstein for comment.
Asked whether the district was willing to make clear whether it is standard policy not to disclose a student’s gender identity without consent, Baxter responded:
“The district has made clear that it is our mission to create a safe place where students feel comfortable in expressing themselves without fear of rejection and discrimination. Our gender identity guidelines align with Maryland state law, which entitles students to privacy regarding gender identity.”
Cogdill expressed gratitude for being able to teach in MCPS and for the district’s affirming policies but said xe wishes the district would be “more vocal and demonstrative” when it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ students and staff.
“It’s like they’re quietly supporting us, but what I need right now is more vocal support,” Cogdill said.
During a Tuesday afternoon session, County Council member Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5) said the County Council has been in talks with MCPS about ramping up proactive support for the LGBTQ+ and especially transgender communities, and not “shying away” from inclusive messaging.
“In conversations with [MCPS], certainly I’ve heard concerns that they know that there will be backlash,” Mink said. “I expressed to them, we have to demonstrate that we are willing to take that backlash, because we don’t want it to fall upon the shoulders of those who are most impacted.”