Administrators at Norterra Canyon, a public elementary and middle school in north Phoenix, forbade students from forming a LGBTQ support club or discussing gender identity on campus, according to several students and parents who spoke with Phoenix New Times.
Norterra Canyon principal Tish Mineer also ordered teachers to ignore a transgender eighth-grader’s request to be called by their chosen name and preferred pronouns, students and parents said.
Allegations of a toxic environment for LGBTQ students at Norterra Canyon, in particular Mineer’s alleged role in fostering an unwelcoming atmosphere, were outlined in a complaint filed by a parent with state authorities this month. Mineer has been principal of the school since 2015, according to her Facebook page.
The parent, Nina Cosiano, showed New Times a November 7 letter from the Arizona Department of Education confirming that the agency received her complaint. The letter states that investigators would look into whether the allegations against Mineer are true. If substantiated, officials could then determine whether Mineer's actions constitute "immoral or unprofessional conduct.”
"The Department has received the complaint and our investigative unit is reviewing the allegations,” said Department of Education spokesperson Richard Taylor. "However, an investigation has not been opened at this time."
With the help of Robert Chevaleau, the director of education and outreach at the Arizona Trans Youth Parent Organization, Cosiano also raised concerns to the school's governing body, the Deer Valley Unified School District.
After conducting an internal investigation, Deer Valley officials concluded that the allegations in Cosiano's complaint were “unfounded,” wrote Scott Warner, director of school operations, in a November 1 email to Chevaleau that was obtained by New Times.
Neither Mineer nor an assistant principal involved in the case, Jen Hermanson, responded to request for comment. In an email to New Times, Warner reiterated that a Deer Valley deputy superintendent investigated Cosiano's complaint and found that it "relied on secondhand information that was mostly incorrect." Warner also disputed some of the claims made by students and parents in this story.
Deer Valley's findings conflict with the accounts of five students and two parents who were either directly involved in meetings with Norterra Canyon administrators about the treatment of LGBTQ students or were given firsthand accounts shortly after the meetings occurred.
In addition to the accounts of students and parents, a former Norterra Canyon teacher told New Times that LGBTQ students, including students involved in this case, often confided in her in lieu of support from school administrators.
Cosiano, her 14-year-old daughter Mayah Cerrata, and Chevaleau all raised concerns about Norterra Canyon’s treatment of LGBTQ students during a Deer Valley Unified School District board meeting on Tuesday evening.
Cerrata told the five-member board and superintendent Curtis Finch that neither she nor any of her LGBTQ peers "feels safe at Norterra Canyon." The eighth-grader added, "That's an issue because you're supposed to feel safe at school, especially public school."
Cerrata said that her transgender friend Sam (not a real name) struggled with serious mental health challenges after Mineer refused to allow the student to use their chosen name and preferred gender identity.
"That did something to [Sam], like really bad," Cerrata said. "Ms. Mineer shouldn't be putting her personal views above the safety of the students. She should be focusing on their safety and not how they identify as or who they're attracted to."
“As an LGBTQ child once myself, and as a mother of an LGBTQ child, the behavior demonstrated by Mineer and some of her staff is completely unacceptable,” Cosiano said to the five-member governing board. "These students feel unsafe and unwelcomed at their own school. They have been shamed and bullied and belittled."
In his statement to the board, Chevaleau questioned the thoroughness of the investigation into Cosiano's complaint and claimed that no students were interviewed as part of the probe. He called for a renewed investigation, for the district to train school faculty on best practices for supporting LGBTQ students, for the adoption of a "kindness club" at Norterra Canyon, and for a tweak in the district's nondiscrimination policy to explicitly protect sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
“These students were bullied by your school leadership,” Chevaleau said. "I’ve been doing this sort of work for about four years now across the Valley. And in my four years of doing this, this is by far the most egregious incident I have come across."
The board members listened intently to the comments, but did not respond, likely due to a rule requiring them to only address items on the meeting agenda.
The Principal's OfficeOn October 17, five students went to Principal Mineer’s office to raise concerns about bullying and what they viewed as a lack of support from faculty members, according to students and parents familiar with the events of the day. Some of the students also wanted to start either a LGBTQ club or a general club emphasizing kindness and tolerance.
Several bullying incidents they had witnessed or were subjected to during recent school years highlighted the need for a space where LGBTQ students could feel safe and supported, including cases of students calling gay classmates slurs, such as “faggot,” or mocking the appearance of a transgender student.
On top of mistreatment from their classmates, the students who went to Mineer's office felt like faculty members weren’t helping them feel welcome. In fact, they felt Norterra Canyon’s chief administrator was making the situation worse.
One day this fall during recess, Mineer eavesdropped on a group of seventh- and eighth-graders who were discussing gender identity and sexuality on a sidewalk at the school, students recounted to New Times. Mineer allegedly told the students that such topics were inappropriate for school.
"They butted into our convo and started saying how school isn't a place for that," one of the students told New Times. "Mineer said that she talked to us like that cause the kindergartners were passing, but we weren't being loud. We were talking amongst ourselves and not causing a scene."
(While Sam does not use they/them pronouns, New Times is doing so to protect the student's privacy. This month, Sam started to question whether they still identify as trans, according to sources who regularly talk with the student.)
Sam also told a former Norterra Canyon teacher on August 12 that Mineer would not allow them to use the name they identified with, the teacher confirmed to New Times.
Mineer allegedly told Sam they could not use their chosen name because it went against one of their parent’s wishes, suggesting that Mineer discussed Sam’s gender identity with their family.
With these examples in mind, the students initially found that Mineer was not in her office. An office manager asked the students to put their concerns in writing.
After the students finished writing their statements, the assistant principal, Hermanson, called the group into her office, where she held a meeting with them that lasted for more than two hours.
Hermanson reportedly told the students that they would not be able to form a club and that discussing sexuality and gender identity was inappropriate, claiming that such talk could negatively influence their younger peers. One student who was present in the meeting paraphrased Hermanson's reasoning: "We shouldn't be introducing them to this new stuff and we need to keep them sheltered away from it."
At one point, Sam, who had changed their hair and dress to match their gender identity, said their appearance made classmates feel uncomfortable when they walked into the restroom. Hermanson responded by telling the transgender student that they sounded and looked like the gender on their birth certificate, paying particular attention to the student’s hands.
After the meeting, Mineer called some of the students’ parents in for meetings. Sharon (not her real name), the mother of a seventh-grade daughter who identifies as bisexual, said she got the call from Mineer while she was at work. Sharon dropped by Noterra Canyon after school was dismissed.
According to Sharon, Mineer told her that her daughter, Jessica (not her real name), and a classmate went to Hermanson’s office and “demanded” that the school allow them to start a LGBTQ club. When Hermanson said no, Sharon’s daughter went back with more friends and asked again.
"Ms. Mineer told me this is unacceptable and would not be happening in my school,” Sharon said. She added that principal expressed her disdain for discussions of transgender issues at Norterra Canyon. "She was talking about how the kids were communicating about these types of kids. She says they don't know what they are talking about and it will not happen in my school.”
Sharon said Mineer also read to her Jessica's statement — the one that her office manager had asked Jessica and the other students to write before the meeting with Hermanson. In that statement, Jessica later confirmed to New Times by text message, she had made mention of her LGBTQ identity, which she had not yet disclosed to her parents. In other words, Mineer outed the girl to her mother. She added that her parents have been accepting since that day.
Sharon told New Times she doesn’t think her daughter did anything wrong.
"To be honest, I was kind of proud of her for sticking up for her friends,” Sharon said. "Maybe there are better ways to go about it, but she didn't mean any harm. She meant to do good.”
In addition to students and parents who raised concerns to New Times, the former Norterra Canyon teacher who spoke with Sam about Sam's struggles with Mineer said LGBTQ students frequently turned to her to vent because they did not feel supported by the school.
“Some students have families that are not supportive of them being in the LGBTQ community. Their friends are accepting, but when the school is not supportive, these kids feel desperate, lost, or suicidal,” said the teacher, who asked New Times not to use her name because she fears retaliation. “It’s brushed under the rug and they are told that school counseling is for academic issues.”
In his email to New Times, Scott Warner, Deer Valley director of school operations, did not address questions related to Sam's meeting with Mineer, citing a federal law that protects the privacy of student records. But Warner said that, according to district policy, the Deer Valley school administrators meet with a transgender student and their parents if the student asks to be called their preferred name or pronouns. If the parent consents, then Deer Valley schools will respect the student's wishes.
"If we have a student who identifies as transgender, but their parent/guardian has clearly forbid us from using the student's preferred name or preferred pronouns, [instructing teachers not to use the student's chosen name and pronouns] would be an appropriate direction from school administration," Warner added.
Warner also denied that Mineer ever told students that they were forbidden from talking about sexuality or gender identity. In what appears to be a reference to an incident in which Mineer confronted LGBTQ students talking about their sexuality, Warner said: "What did happen was that students were loudly discussing their sexuality within earshot of a number of other students and were redirected by school personnel. Students having a private conversation will not be censored, however, students talking loudly about their sexuality, heterosexual or otherwise, will be redirected."
In response to questions about the October 17 meeting between Hermanson and students regarding bullying, Warner did not address claims that the assistant principal forbade students from forming an LGBTQ club or discussing gender identity and sexuality. Nor did Warner address the claim that Hermanson told Sam that the student sounded and looked like their assigned birth gender. He also did not address a claim that Mineer read student statements to parents that outed the students.
Warner stated: "School administration met with each student and their parent(s) privately to share student concerns over non-specific bullying so that all would understand how to report bullying if it happened. LGBTQ concerns were not raised during these conversations." (Emphasis Warner's.)
Finally, Warner emphasized that the district investigated Cosiano's complaint and found the allegations contained within to be "unsubstantiated." He did not address questions regarding the investigatory process, including inquiries regarding who the district interviewed and how they determined the truth to the complaint's claims.
Speech and Privacy
The complaints about Norterra Canyon raise free speech and privacy questions, according to legal advocates.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) holds that it is unconstitutional for public school officials to prohibit students from discussing LGBTQ issues so long as their speech does not disrupt classroom activities.
A "know your rights” pamphlet published on the organization’s website puts it this way: "Standing up and yelling, 'I’m gay!' in the middle of English class isn’t okay, but talking with a friend at school about being gay between classes or at lunch is."
The ACLU has also claimed that it is unconstitutional for public school officials to reveal a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity without the student’s consent.
"School officials may think they are doing the right thing by revealing students’ sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents,” wrote James Esseks, the director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and HIV Project, in an open letter in 2015. "But doing so can have dramatic and unforeseen consequences. In one particularly tragic case, a teenager committed suicide after a police officer threatened to disclose his sexual orientation to his family.”
In addition to legal questions, the school’s refusal to allow Sam to use their chosen name also appears to conflict with the American Psychological Association’s (APA) published best practices for supporting transgender students.
"All students have the right to be addressed by the name and pronoun that corresponds to their gender identity. A legal change of name or gender designation is not required,” the APA’s handbook states. "Administrators should work with staff, students, and others to make sure that names and pronouns aligned with a student’s gender identity are used consistently.”
There is scientific evidence to support respecting a transgender student’s chosen name and preferred pronouns.
A 2018 study by a research team at the University of Texas at Austin found that 129 transgender students from three U.S. cities who were able to use their chosen names showed "fewer depressive symptoms and less suicidal ideation and behavior.”
The study found that having even one context in which the students could use a chosen name (such as school, work, or home) was associated with a 29 percent decrease in suicidal thoughts.
The lead author on that study, Stephen T. Russell, also published an earlier paper showing that transgender students have suicidal thoughts at nearly twice the rate of their peers.
"It’s practical to support young people in using the name that they choose,” Russell said in a statement when the study was released. “It’s respectful and developmentally appropriate.”