A gay middle school English teacher, Amy Estes, said she had to take a mental health leave after student harassment grew more and more intense and her school did little to mitigate the problem.
It all began when a former student asked to stay in touch with her and followed Estes on Instagram. After Estes posted a photo of herself and her partner, the former student saw the photo and spread word to other students at Spring View Middle School in Rocklin Unified School District in California, Estes told ThinkProgress.
“So much of the conversation was negative and hurtful. It wasn’t like ‘She’s gay, that’s whatever,’ it was ‘Oh that’s gross. That’s disgusting,’” Estes said of the hurtful comments students posted about her online.
Estes said she experienced harassment, was told to take down a poster meant to help LGBTQ students feel safe, and felt that the administrators said LGBTQ student would need to adhere to requirements others did not.
Last September, a student approached her to tell her students were talking about her online. She informed the administration, but they minimized it as “middle school drama,” Estes said. She then had a conversation with a student who she believed was one of the most involved in the discussion of her sexuality online, at the suggestion of administration, but the student denied being involved. Estes said that student misbehaved several times in class that were unrelated to the harassment, and she reached out to his mother. But the mother accused of her of making it personal, Estes said.
“The tone of email was that I was retaliating against her child for something he didn’t do and that she had seen the things on Instagram and Snapchat and that was my private life, and how dare I rope her child into it?” Estes said. “And I was blindsided at that point. I didn’t realize how huge it had gotten. So I went to the administration again and still nothing happened. They basically said ‘OK we will deal with that parent from here on out but there is nothing we can do otherwise’ and I said ‘Well I think we should address this on a larger scale.’”
Estes said that since she shares English with a group of 120 students and three other teachers, she suggested that teachers have a conversation with the whole group to confirm that “Yes, I’m gay, and you figured it out. Here’s how we are going to deal with it.”
“The principal’s words exact words were ‘Well we don’t want you coming out unless it absolutely comes to that,’” Estes said.
Although to many Americans, there appears to be progress in visibility and legal protections for the LGBTQ community since same-sex marriage became the law in all 50 states in 2015 and films depicting queer relationships have flourished at award ceremonies, the reality is very different for queer and trans teachers. There is no federal law that gives specific protections to queer and trans workers. Only 20 states and Washington, D.C. have these protections for both queer and trans workers. California is among those states and public schools are required to teach LGBTQ history, but at Spring View, Estes still faced barriers to LGBTQ inclusion.
“There are students in my classroom that I know are queer and they’re seeing this, like, ‘Holy cow, this is happening to an adult. What would happen to me if I were out with my peers?
A 2017 Center for American Progress survey found that 36.5 percent of all people in the LGBTQ community surveyed hid a personal relationship and 62.9 percent of those who experienced some kind of discrimination hid personal relationships. In the workplace, LGBTQ people of color were more likely to hide gender identity and sexual orientation from employers than white people in the LGBTQ community. A 2017 report by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and National Public Radio found that one in five people in the community said they were discriminated against when being considered for a promotion, applying for a job, or looking for housing.
Estes’ experience is similar to other teachers who administrators failed to support when they were criticized by parents who disapproved of queer teachers being out in the classroom or simply acknowledging the existence of people in the LGBTQ community. Of course, one of the main differences is that Estes was outed and did not get the chance to control how people learned she is gay. But the lack of administration support once the information came out fits a pattern. A Texas elementary school teacher, Stacy Bailey, was suspended after she mentioned her wife to students. A Kentucky chorus teacher, Nicholas Breiner, lost his job a month after he came out as bisexual on Instagram, which he said he did to show LGBTQ students they are not alone. Breiner said the deputy superintendent questioned him about his sexual orientation. In 2015, a teacher read a book about two princes falling in love and dealt with significant parent backlash, but administrators did not have his back. Teachers have lost their jobs after getting married.
Estes said there is still a lot of fear among teachers in the LGBTQ community about being themselves in the classroom.
“I don’t want to categorize my district specifically at all but what I have heard from a number of teachers is that despite marriage equality being the law of the land there is still a lot of living in the shadows,” Estes said.
Estes added, “The idea that I could just offhand mention my partner and what our life is like to students — that isn’t something that just happens for gay teachers. It is a reality for many queer teachers that we might have certain legal rights but in terms of just being ourselves, I think there are a lot of unwritten rules. The assumption that my mentioning my female partner somehow that’s going to be turned into pressure for students to be gay or how-to course on gay culture.”
After harassment became worse, Estes took steps toward greater privacy on all of her personal social media accounts. But students found her professional social media and posted hateful language on a professional video on student discipline produced for her master’s program on school leadership, she said. Estes said she went to administrators again and worked on a plan for a lesson on tolerance, with administrative encouragement but without administrative help, to address the issue. Administrators didn’t approve of her approach and said they’d get back to her with revisions but didn’t. Months later, not long after a student made homophobic comments on a school project, and progress stalled yet again, she went to her union representative.
Estes said that after she went to various teachers union representatives who eventually referred her to a lawyer, she thinks some people in the community perceive her as out to make money, but she wants them to know she is doing this for the LGBTQ community.
“There are students in my classroom that I know are queer and they’re seeing this, like, ‘Holy cow, this is happening to an adult. What would happen to me if I were out with my peers?’” she said.
Thirty-three percent of LGBTQ students said they were physically harassed in the past year because of sexual orientation and 23 percent were physically harassed because of their gender, according to a 2014 survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Estes said that, unrelated to the harassment issue, she mentioned the idea of starting a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) to administrators. A GSA is a student-led group that gives students in the LGBTQ community a safe space to fully be themselves. Some schools have resisted GSAs after conservative residents and parents objected to the creation of these student-led groups. One school district’s board even considered eliminating all student groups simply to avoid the assertion that they were targeting a GSA.
Although it was not a requirement for other clubs to have administrators or counselors at meetings, Spring View said an administrator or counselor would have to be present at GSA meetings, she said.
In 2016, Estes also put up a GLSEN poster meant to affirm queer and trans students, but the school principal asked her to remove it. She followed orders. After that incident and other indications that staff may not be comfortable with talking about LGBTQ issues, Estes went back to the principal to talk about inclusion at the school. She said the principal said she would “see what the district has in mind” and in the 2017-2018 school year, she broached the issue again.
“I felt strongly that I should be able to hang up the safe space sign. So I went to principal again and said ‘I really need to hang this up’ and she said ‘I’ll look into it in the district and in the meantime don’t do anything until I have given you permission to do so’ and so I didn’t. I followed up with her and nothing happened. She never got back to me. When I approached her again, she said I’m still looking into it.”
After struggling with harassment and what appeared to be a lack of concern from administration on how to make LGBTQ teachers and students feel welcome, Estes, who has had anxiety and depression since her teens, took a mental health leave. She is still on that leave until she feels comfortable going back to work.
Community members have spoken in front of the school board to support Estes after the harassment she experienced for months. During the school board meeting earlier this month, school board president Todd Lowell said the Rocklin Unified School District will make sure that “all our students, staff and families feel welcome, safe and supported” and said Estes’ comments were one side of the story, according to ABC 10.
The Rocklin Unified School District said it could not answer all of ThinkProgress’ questions due to pending litigation. However, in response to a question about whether teachers in the LGBTQ community are expected not to be out in the classroom, Diana Capra, spokesperson for the district, responded, “The District has the same expectations of all its teachers.” When asked about the GSA issues Estes mentioned, Capra said, “While we can not comment regarding Ms. Estes specifically due to pending litigation, we can share with you there are Gay Straight Alliance groups at some of our secondary District schools. They are initiated through the regular process to start a student club.”
Capra added that its middle and high schools have wellness programs for students and staff and plan to include parent, guardian and staff resource nights around social emotional wellness strategies. She said it has sent administrators and staff to The Museum of Tolerance, which the district says help “better understand and support students and staff who are LGBTQ.” Capra said staff is implementing strategies for intervention in situations where people are being treated unfairly. The district will also roll out a plan for inclusivity in its schools “that involves engaging staff in examining belief systems and behaviors before it moves into adopting formal programs and strategies, in order to ensure enduring outcomes for our District so all students and staff feel welcome, safe and supported.”