TWIN FALLS — Twin Falls High School is reeling after a school-spirit activity left some students feeling marginalized and sparked harassment of transgender students.
Some students are so upset they haven’t returned to school.
The student council organized the event April 28, a school tradition. In past years, it was a “boys versus girls” day with friendly competitions. But in response to student concerns, student leaders changed it to “blue versus pink” this year in an effort to be more inclusive.
A group of students — including some who are transgender — say they feel targeted after wearing purple shirts to school instead of pink or blue. And messages painted on the school rock over the weekend are raising bigger issues about gender and student acceptance at the high school.
Emotions were running high all week but some students put up posters encouraging purple as a sign of including everyone.
“Within a few hours, most of them had been scribbled on or taken down,” said one student who declined to be named. “That made me feel kind of bad about it but there wasn’t emotion until the next day.”
Twin Falls High student Ryan Flores, 14, said he heard negative comments even before Friday surrounding the students – including himself – who decided to wear purple.
“I hadn’t even told anyone I would be wearing purple that day, and I was already getting yelled at about it,” he said. He said he thought he could still pull through and didn’t want to be “that one kid who complains about everything.”
Twin Falls resident Jen Blair, an advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, said her daughter, who is straight, decided to participate.
“It was pretty hostile in the hallways all day, apparently,” Blair said.
Her daughter was yelled at, including comments to the effect of, “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.”
“For students who are gender variant, it was a particularly intense day,” Blair said.
Some teachers led class discussions about gender during the day but other incidents felt traumatizing to some students, she said.
In one classroom, a student wrote a message on a chalkboard — “transgenderism is a mental disease” — but it was erased without discussion, Blair said.
She said one student made a comment to a classmate that transgender people “just need to kill themselves.”
“It was just a really horrific day for some of these students,” she said.
Ryan said he heard “some very negative and vulgar comments” at school Friday. And during the all-school assembly at the end of a long day, students sat in two groups: those wearing pink and those wearing blue.
“What I saw was just repulsive, and it made me feel ill,” Ryan said. He started having a panic attack.
He said he didn’t want to go to the boys’ side because he thought he’d be kicked out, but he’s not a girl. Other students felt the same way, he said. There was no place for them.
“I didn’t feel like I was being thought about or valued,” Ryan said. “I was basically being told I didn’t exist but I know a lot of people have it way worse.” Some students he knows don’t identify as either gender or identify as both.
One friend of the student who declined to be named had no idea where to sit during the assembly or where they belonged. “I felt scared for them because they were lost and in pain about the school not accepting everybody.”
When students left school, they saw the school rock had been painted: half pink and half blue, and with the international symbols for male and female.
Words were also written on the rock: “Tradition is Tradition.”
“It was kind of like a slap in the face after a rough day,” Blair said. “Then the social media began.”
One picture of the rock was circulating via social media with a caption below it: “F*** that transgender bulls***.”
Students who wore purple to school decided to paint the school rock dark blue, one of Twin Falls High’s colors.
“I was super proud of that,” Blair said.
They painted it around 11 p.m. Saturday, accompanied by adults because “the students were afraid they would get physically attacked,” Blair said.
Students wrote “All Bruins United” on one side of the rock and “No H8!!!” on the other side.
By 1 or 2 a.m., the rock had been painted over with red paint and in white letters: “Netflix and Chill?” and ”Hulu and Commitment,” phrases often used as euphemisms for sex.
The student council was called in to paint over it. By Monday, the rock displayed a message for teacher appreciation week.
Blair is a member of “Mama Dragons,” a support group for gay Mormons, their families and allies. She joined after her son came out as gay. She also works with youth through Magic Valley Pride, helps with gay/straight alliances at Twin Falls and Canyon ridge high schools and is on a national board for a LGBTQ Mormon group.
She and a student met with an assistant principal Monday, and she says they received a good response.
But on Tuesday, some students decided to stay home or go to Blair’s house.
Twin Falls High is a “battle zone,” Blair said Tuesday. “Kids who are the minorities just aren’t at school today.”
Ryan returned to school Tuesday but was getting text message updates about what was happening with the school rock, started panicking and broke down in the middle of his first period class. He left school after that.
“I no longer felt safe,” he said. He said he wants to return to Twin Falls High but needs to know there’s a safe environment first and a punishment for “the kids who have created such as violent environment.”
And he said the school rock messages need to be addressed “very seriously.”
When she met with school officials Monday, Blair said, they weren’t aware any students had even complained about it.
Twin Falls School District Superintendent Wiley Dobbs urged students to report any concerns to school administrators.
“We want to make sure that students know if they’re uncomfortable about a situation or they feel like they’ve been discriminated against in some fashion, they need to report it,” he said.
Dobbs said Twin Falls High administrators weren’t aware of concerns with the spirit day until Monday and went to work investigating it. He’s pleased with how they responded.
The school district doesn’t have policies or rules about student expression using school rocks, district spokeswoman Eva Craner said. “Maybe that will be something that administrators will look at now.”
The district does have a non-discrimination policy “that would cover any form of expression on our campuses,” she said.
In 2015, Twin Falls school trustees adopted a new gender identity and sexual orientation policy. It includes a section about school dress codes, saying they must be gender neutral, “including (dress codes for) the traditional school day, school activities including dances/prom, and graduation.”
The policy states “disciplinary action” will be taken for students and employees who don’t follow it, but the policy doesn’t provide details about what those actions might entail.
School administrators have been reviewing the policy over the last couple of days, Craner said.
In the future, school officials plan to provide more education and training to students — specifically, student council members — “to make sure all students feel welcome in our school,” she said.
The student council had good intentions for creating an engaging spirit week for their classmates, Craner said. “Perhaps it could have been more inclusive.”
Twin Falls High’s class rock was placed in front of Roper Auditorium by a graduating class in the late 1960s, Dobbs said. It was later moved to in front of the main school building.
Students often paint the rock with messages throughout the school year, such as to celebrate a friend’s birthday or remember a classmate who has died.
“There are very few times where a message has had to be removed or edited,” Dobbs said. “I think that the kids over the years have used their First Amendment rights pretty darn well.”
But the aftermath of Friday’s spirit day may prompt school officials to make changes.
“We want to make sure that students know if they’re uncomfortable about a situation or they feel like they’ve been discriminated against in some fashion, they need to report it.” Superintendent Wiley Dobbs