Another parent says the principal of Norterra Canyon, a public elementary and middle school in north Phoenix, prohibited students from talking about their sexual orientation or gender identity on campus.
The mother's firsthand account is consistent with those of students and parents who have already claimed to Phoenix New Times that Norterra Canyon stifles the speech of LGBTQ students.
The mother was not interviewed during an internal investigation of allegations that Norterra Canyon administrators contribute to a harmful environment for LGBTQ students. The investigation, led by a deputy superintendent for the school's governing body, the Deer Valley Unified School District (DVUSD), found the allegations of anti-LGBTQ bias at Norterra Canyon to be unsubstantiated.
Whereas two other parents who previously spoke with New Times based their accounts on conversations with their children, Mary said she directly witnessed principal Tish Mineer tell her seventh-grade daughter, Taylor, and another classmate that it is inappropriate to talk about sexual orientation at Norterra Canyon. (Both Mary and Taylor are pseudonyms.)
Monica Allread, a spokesperson for the DVUSD, disputed Mary's version of events. She said Mineer has only prohibited "sexually explicit conversation," not discussions of sexual orientation.
Mary said she received a call from Mineer on October 17 asking her to come to the school to have a meeting with her Taylor and her classmate Jessica (also a pseudonym).
Earlier in the day, a group of students including Taylor and Jessica say they had gone to Mineer's office to ask to form an LGBTQ club after multiple incidents of bullying. Mineer was not present, so an assistant asked them to put their concerns in writing.
The mother went to Norterra Canyon after she got off work. She was amused by a sign she saw while walking to Mineer's office. Referring to the school's mascot, the sign read: "Pirates aren't bullies."
In Mineer's office, the principal asked Taylor and Jessica, both seventh-graders, to read out loud to Mary the statements they wrote in her office that day.
Both statements expressed concern for one of their classmates, a transgender eighth-grader who faced bullying by their classmates. (New Times is using they/them pronouns for the transgender student to protect their privacy.) The statements also raised concerns about an incident in which Mineer demanded that a group of students stop talking about their sexual orientation at recess.
As Taylor explained it to New Times: "We were talking about what we are. I have some bi friends, some gay friends, some transgender friends, and some pansexual friends. We were just talking about what we were, and that's when they started yelling at us."
Mary said Mineer directly addressed Taylor and Jessica and told them it was inappropriate to talk about sexual orientation in an academic setting.
"Mineer told them that them talking about any issues of sexuality was absolutely prohibited at this school," Mary said. "She made them feel foolish for coming to them in the first place."
Mineer repeatedly referred to Norterra Canyon as "my school" during the meeting, according to Mary.
DVUSD spokesperson Allread confirmed that the October 17 meeting occurred, but denied that Mineer forbade the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity. "However, she did clarify that sexually explicit conversations or any conversations disruptive to the learning environment will be redirected," Allread said.
Allread gave a nearly identical statement to 12News in a story published on November 14. Having read the 12News story, Jessica hand-wrote a two-page letter on loose-leaf paper disputing Allread's quotes. Mary sent New Times a photo of the letter.
"When the article talks about how we were not talking about sexuality, but rather sexually explicit things, she lied," Taylor wrote, alluding to the claim that Mineer silenced them at recess. "I was in the group that day and she clearly stated that sexuality was not something to talk about at school ... She told us that it was not a school topic and she didn't want the little kids to know."
Taylor's letter further alleges that on the day she and her classmates went to her office to report anti-LGBTQ bullying, Mineer later approached some of the students and admonished them for "bad behavior." The student added: "She also said we did not know what we were talking about and that we just wanted to start something."
The letter includes an allegation, previously reported by New Times, that Mineer outed a bisexual student to her parent without the child's consent.
Mary said she was angered when she read a New Times article in which a DVUSD official denied that Mineer prohibits students from discussing their sexuality and gender identity. Scott Warner, DVUSD director of operations, said in an email to New Times this week that Mineer intervened in a situation where "students were loudly discussing their sexuality within earshot of a number of other students."
He added: "Students having a private conversation will not be censored, however, students talking loudly about their sexuality, heterosexual or otherwise, will be redirected."
"That is absolutely not true," Mary said. "She said it's an academic environment and talking about those things is inappropriate."
Mary also said she was not contacted during the district's investigation of the case. She asserted that the allegations were found to be "not substantiated because they didn't reach out to anybody."
Asked why Mary was not interviewed during the investigation, Allread told New Times: "As with any investigation, specific details can’t be released. Multiple stakeholders were interviewed. These stakeholders included administrators, teachers, and some of the students and parents who were directly involved."
Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, say restricting students from talking about their sexuality infringes on their free speech rights. A landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on student speech, Tinker v. Des Moines, found that administrators of public schools may only restrict student speech that would "materially and substantially interfere" with school operations.
Concerns regarding mistreatment of LGBTQ students at Norterra Canyon started bubbling up in October when Mayah Cerrata, an eighth-grader at the school, reported to her mother, Nina Cosiano, that Mineer was not allowing her transgender friend to use their chosen name and preferred pronouns. Cerrata also conveyed to her mother the accounts of her friends who were allegedly rebuked by Mineer for discussing sexuality at recess.
Cosiano connected with Robert Chevaleau, the director of education and outreach at the Arizona Trans Youth and Parent Organization. Chevaleau helped her file a complaint with DVUSD, as well as the Arizona Department of Education.
Cosiano, Cerrata, and Chevaleau all spoke about their concerns during a Tuesday evening DVUSD board meeting. None of the five school board members responded to the public comments during the meeting, likely owing to a rule requiring them to speak only on agenda items. Four of five of the board members also did not respond to a list of detailed questions emailed to them by New Times on November 13.
"I am still trying to gather information to understand all sides of the issue," said governing board member Julie Read in an email on November 14.
DVUSD Superintendent Curtis Finch declined to answer most of the questions posed to him by New Times, including detailed questions on Mineer's alleged stifling of LGBTQ student speech. Finch only generally addressed DVUSD's unwritten policy to not allow transgender students to use their chosen names without a parent's consent.
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"DVUSD strives to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all of our students at all of our schools," he said.
Asked to comment on the situation at Norterra Canyon, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said: "Every student deserves a safe and inclusive learning environment, no matter their gender identity, orientation, or background. Because students have a very difficult time learning when those needs go unmet, educators and administrators should strive to create cultures where all students are supported and protected from bullying or harassment."
The matter likely won't be taken up by the state, Hoffman suggested.
"The Department, through our Associate Superintendent of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, can provide resources and guidance to schools wanting to craft inclusive policies," Hoffman said. "However, given Arizona’s system of local control, situations of this nature likely need to be addressed at the district level."