It was just 659 words of white text on a black background. A letter to the editor of Expressions, the student newspaper for SLO High School, published on the paper’s website May 9, and it appeared to tell the school’s LGBT students, and others like them, that they “deserved to die.”
The letter was penned by Michael Stack, a special education teacher at the school, in response to a recent issue of the paper featuring multiple articles about LGBT issues and students at the school. In his letter, Stack said he felt moved to respond by his Christian faith, citing a lengthy page from the Bible’s book of Romans, which described homosexual activity as “wicked” and “sinful” acts in defiance of God.
“They know God’s justice required that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway,” Stack wrote.
Stack’s letter ignited a firestorm of controversy, courting outrage from local parents, politicians, students, advocates, and members of SLO’s LGBT community. By May 11, the letter brought a sizable crowd of demonstrators outside of the high school, and the following day, Stack announced his resignation.
“God knows my heart, and my students know my actions,” Stack wrote in an email to the district, “but the community apparently wants me out, so I hereby grant them their desires, and immediately resign my position as teacher at SLCUSD [San Luis Coastal Unified School District].”
But even with Stack no longer in the picture, some worry about the long-term impact his words would have on the area’s LGBT youth.
“Any teenager in high school is going through a rough time … much less an LGBT student,” said Ryan Duclos, president of SLO County’s Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA). “They are not only dealing with those same struggles, they are also dealing with issues about their gender and sexuality.”
How the school’s LGBT students would interpret Stack’s letter, and its fallout, was also a concern for SLO High School parent Todd Nemet, who penned one of the many direct responses to Stack’s letter in the comment section on the Expressions website.
“What if there were a student who looked up to you and who is struggling with his or her identity? How do think he or she would feel right now?” Nemet wrote. “As the father of a gay student at SLOHS, I am appalled that you would think this appropriate and that you think parents are going to stand by while you put our kids at real risk of harm.”
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, some LGBT youth are more likely to experience difficulties at home and at school than their heterosexual peers, and negative attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual people put them at increased risk for experiencing bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault, and suicidal behaviors.
Many LGBT students in SLO County struggle with those same issues, according to John Elfers, co-chair of the nonprofit Central Coast Coalition for Inclusive Schools. Since 2013, the organization has collected data about LGBT students in middle and high school via the California Healthy Kids Survey.
According to data from the 2015-16 school year, there were an estimated 1,156 students in SLO County’s public middle and high schools who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. According to the data, 11.7 percent of the LGBT students surveyed stated they did not feel safe at school, and nearly half of those same students stated that they were bullied because of their sexual orientation. Transgender students were four times more likely to report that they don’t feel safe at school, and roughly 46 percent of them reported that they had considered suicide within the last 12 months, according to the survey data.
The same data also shows the challenges LGBT students face in feeling connected to their school and teachers. According to the survey, LGBT students in SLO County were less likely than their heterosexual peers to agree that they felt like they were a part of their school, and less likely to agree that their teachers treat them fairly.
Elfers said making sure LGBT students know there are teachers in their school who support them was an important factor in creating a safe and inclusive school environment.
“When students know who the safe teachers are, and they know there are a lot of them, that also makes a difference,” he said.
Elfers said setting clear school policies about bullying and harassment, as well as providing supportive peer groups, could help. Outside of school, Duclos said the GALA runs the Q Youth Group, which meets Thursdays at the group’s headquarters on Palm Street between 6 and 8 p.m., and serves youth ages 13 to 18. Currently, some campuses in the district, including SLO High School and Laguna Middle School, are home to Gay Student Alliance clubs
For Lauren Knuttila, a teacher and faculty advisor for the Laguna Middle School GSA, providing a welcoming environment for LGBT students is key.
“Education needs to be accessible for everyone, and you can’t access your education unless you are being supported socially,” Knuttila said.
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.