Nyssa parents decry outdoor school gender pronoun policy

NYSSA—Parents called on the Nyssa School Board during its Monday, March 13 meeting to pull out of a fifth-grade field trip paid for and hosted by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry after they learned the museum’s staff would use gender pronouns when introducing themselves to students and would invite them to do the same. 

The Nyssa board did not act on the request.  

Emily Olson, Nyssa Elementary School fifth-grade teacher, told the Nyssa board Monday that 70 students will attend the science museum’s Hancock Field (also known as Camp Hancock) Outdoor School located in the John Day Fossil Beds April 5-7 and April 17-19 with five teachers and 16 parent chaperones. 

Olson told the board they noticed the organization’s equity statement on documents. 

According to the statement, “OMSI outdoor school uses and supports inclusive pronouns. OMSI staff will introduce themselves using their pronouns, they, she, he, etc…. We’ll invite students, chaperones and teachers to do the same.” 

Olson said that Matt Murray, Nyssa elementary principal, and Darren Johnson, the district’s superintendent, wrote to the organization asking for more clarity on its equity policy. 

Even after the museum responded to the administrators, Johnson said that “perhaps against good judgment,” the district pushed back and asked the science museum not to invite the children to use pronouns. 

According to Olson, the science museum responded that it provides an “opportunity” for staff and participants to use the pronouns they feel most comfortable with. However, she said, the organization would not require others to share their pronouns.  Olson also added that none of the staff from the camp would be in the restrooms, changing rooms, or cabins with students. 

The trip to the outdoor school is for students to learn about science, the outdoors and natural history, Olson said. Another district employee pointed out that the trip’s curriculum is not about gender identity or human sexuality. She told the board that the pronouns would only come up in introductions and would be equivalent to what people put at the bottom of their emails. 

District sends letter, parents still concerned

The district administrators, after getting clarity on OMSI’s policy, sent a letter out to parents to make them aware. 

However, some, such as Amy Shuster, a parent not happy with the policy, said she had hoped her concerns could have been resolved before bringing them to the board said the part of the statement she “focused” on was that the organization’s staff would be inviting kids and others to use gender pronouns. 

“Why are we okay with them thinking that it is their right to bring this to our children?” Shuster said. 

She said that the trip, on the surface, seemed like an “amazing” opportunity for the kids to learn about the fossils. However, she views the equity statement as an indoctrination of gender pronouns on kids. 

“OMSI thinking they have the right to bring this to our children on a field trip is a huge overreach,” she said. “This is a scientific based field trip and it’s in rural Oregon.” 

Another unidentified parent said she felt parents were left out of the decision to select the outdoor school and that parents are now put in a position where they have to be okay with the policy or keep their children from the trip if they are uncomfortable with the use of pronouns. 

She said parents should be making the call about when to teach their kids about sexuality, not OMSI or the school district. 

Shuster said that given the political climate, overnight field trips are not a “safe or smart” idea for the school. 

She said it would be uncomfortable for a child that identifies with their assigned sex at birth and a child that identifies as transgender to room together. 

Shuster also said she would not want her 11-year-old son changing in front of another child transitioning from female to male and would doubt that a little girl would want to change in front of a child transitioning from male to female. 

“These kids are at the cusp of puberty and this is a very dangerous situation for the children to be put in,” Shuster said. 

Shuster said the chaperones and teachers accompanying the kids are also in a “dangerous situation.” 

She said parents who found out later that their child roomed with a transgender kid would be “irate,” and then others would label them as “transphobic” for being upset. 

“No matter what,” Shuster said, “there will be backlash.” 

Shuster, before the meeting, said she asked the school’s administrators to tell the science and museum organization to refrain from inviting the children to share their pronouns. According to Shuster, the outdoor school staff sharing their own pronouns is one thing, but asking students to do so is another.  

“We and you guys as a school board have every right to demand they don’t infringe on asking our children,” she said. “That’s wrong.” 

Shuster said she did not know the Oregon Museum and Science Industry would be paying for the trip. Nonetheless, she said, as taxpayers, the district has a right to reject the policy. 

Shuster declined the Enterprise’s request for comment. 

The trip, according to Olson, is funded by a grant through Oregon State University. Additionally, the district paid program fees and signed a contract in December. 

The concerns about the use of gender pronouns come at a time when the number of young people identifying as transgender continues to increase, according to a 2022 report from the University of California, Los Angeles. However, the report’s authors note that the estimated number of transgender people 13 and up is small, about 1.6 million people. Younger teenagers, 7.6% of the U.S. population, are estimated to comprise roughly 18 percent of transgender people. Transgender identification among kids in the last few years has become a culture war flashpoint, partly due to the rise in minors seeking medical treatments to transition. 

Johnson said the district pushed back against the policy to avoid repeating a situation that played out last year when the superintendent of the Culver School District pulled a group of students hours into a three-day trip at the Tamarack Outdoor School after learning student volunteers overseeing the cabins identified as nonbinary. Nonbinary people identify as being outside of the binary gender spectrum and may identify as female and male, neither female nor male, and may or may not identify as transgender.

Camp Hancock and Camp Tamarack are not affiliated.

Staff members at Camp Hancock will not share cabins, changing rooms or bathrooms with students, staff, or chaperones from Nyssa, according to Olson. 

Megan Robbins, a Nyssa board member, said that every school in the district has a child that identifies as “LGBTQ.” With that, she said, the board’s job is to not “marginalize” those students. 

Whether the district agrees with the science museum’s policy, the decisions to use gender pronouns were made at the state and federal levels.  

“We will follow the law,” Robbins said.  

She said asking the science museum to stop using gender pronouns is “now asking them to violate Oregon law.” 

“We will stand behind the law and follow the law,” Robbins said. “And we won’t marginalize any of our students.”

A fifth-grade teacher with a student using different pronouns who will be going to the outdoor school said she spoke to the student privately. According to the teacher, the student told her they were still “exploring things” and on the trip, this student would be in a cabin with their gender that was assigned at birth. 

According to the Camp Hancock website, a parent chaperone or teacher is required to stay in cabins with the students. Olson said there would be five chaperones and teachers to each student. 

Murray told the board he understands how the concerned parents feel, but they can take their child out of the field trip. 

The trip, Murray said, is the best “academic experience” for the students. Murray said that a similar curriculum and an “as-similar-as-possible”  experience at the school would be available for students who do not go on the trip.  

“We’ve got to be honest about that,” Murray said. “It’s not going to be the same kind of experience.” 

Murray did not respond to subsequent written questions from the Enterprise. 

Olson said the trip was planned ahead of state science testing to improve the scores. 

Johnson said the district “gently pressed back” and told the organization that the community is not “familiar or comfortable” with the use of gender pronouns. He said the organization did not respond. 

Johnson told the board that every school in the district has children that identify as transgender. With that, children might have already been exposed to the concept of gender pronouns, perhaps against their wishes. However, he said, “that is a fact of public schools these days.” 

The district, he said, is trying to follow the state Department of Education’s regulations and the law. 

“We’re also trying to be respectful of people. We’re trying to be respectful of parents who feel otherwise,” Johson said. 

The issue of trans identity and gender is a “thorny” issue, Johnson said. 

Steve Tritz, senior director of statewide and community engagement with the museum of science said the organization has been questioned a few other times by other school districts about its policy surrounding the use of gender pronouns. 

Each time, he said, the science museum has been “consistent with the goal of creating an educational experience that is welcoming and inviting to everyone.” 

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Steve Mitchell - Malheur Enterprise
Malheur Enterprise

Steven Mitchell is a general assignment reporter with the Malheur Enterprise. He has been a journalist in eastern Oregon since 2020 and covers education, local business, housing, natural resources and sports. For questions and news tips, call 971-263-3444 or email [email protected].