Norterra Canyon Principal Quashed Student Project on LGBTQ Pride

Norterra Canyon School
Norterra Canyon School Steven Hsieh
Norterra Canyon principal Tish Mineer — already under fire for allegedly overseeing a toxic environment for LGBTQ students — once prohibited a sixth-grader from working on a project about LGBTQ pride because she felt it was not appropriate for middle-schoolers, according to internal emails.

The sixth-grader was allegedly told to do a project on teen pregnancy instead.

Mineer also complained to a children's magazine after it published an article mentioning gender identity, saying she did not feel it appropriate to "expose" Norterra Canyon's middle-schoolers to the topic.

The messages from the embattled principal support allegations that she has stifled speech related to LGBTQ issues at Norterra Canyon, an elementary and middle school in north Phoenix. The emails were obtained through a public records request filed in October by Robert Chevaleau, the director of education for the Arizona Trans Youth and Parent Organization.

In spring  2018, a mother complained via email to Norterra Canyon and its governing body, the Deer Valley Unified School District (DVUSD), after her sixth-grade daughter Alex was told she had to stop working on the LGBTQ project.

According to emails, Alex chose the subject for an assignment on "real world problems." (Alex is not the student's real name. The child's name was redacted in the emails obtained by Chevaleau. Although the mother's name was not redacted, Phoenix New Times is not naming her to protect her child's identity.)

Principal Tish Mineer
Deer Valley Unified School District
The mother first told teacher Stephanie Sanschagrin and Mineer in an email that Alex came home and said she and a classmate were forbidden from continuing work on the project, even though she had already received approval for it.

The girl will have to spend hours starting a new topic, the mother wrote on April 17, 2018. "Everyone else in their class is now way ahead of them and that is unfair since they have put their time in. LGBT pride is a real world problem and she should be able to represent the issue how she sees fit."

Sanschagrin wrote back the same day, telling the mother that Alex would not be penalized for changing her topic and stressed that the students had until May to finish their projects.

The mother was not satisfied. In a follow-up email on April 18, she said time was not her only concern.

"If the school was going to decide what was considered a 'real world problem' or not, then why didn't you guys assign her a topic?" she wrote to Sanschagrin. "Why is her opinion on that topic going to be censored? That is absolutely unfair and not right. I do not think it is okay for her to be told she can't do that topic, making it even more taboo."

The mother added that she and Alex had a discussion about her project when it was assigned. She said she cautioned her daughter that her classmates "may assume things" if Alex chose LGBTQ pride as a topic, but "that didn't change her mind at all."

Finally, the mother said, Alex and her classmate put a lot of work into the project. They made a flag and banner. They spent considerable time detailing a heart on the flag. "[Alex] feels defeated for putting all that time into it and having to start over," the mother wrote.

Mineer responded within an hour, offering to speak with the parent on the phone. It does not appear that the mother responded.

After school got out that day, Mineer emailed Julie Frank, the school operations coordinator for Deer Valley Unified School District, informing the administrator that she might get a message from the mother.

Mineer explained to Frank why she stopped Alex from working on the project: "No LGBT, Transexuals, Pornography, etc.. topics. These are not age appropriate topics for 6th graders. There are plenty of other 'real world problems' they can choose from, just not ones that have to do with sexual orientation or sex."

Alex's mother wrote back to Mineer about a month later.

She said had planned to "just let this go." But then she heard her daughter make a comment about an "erratic man" they saw and suggest he may have been using cocaine. The mother asked Alex where she learned about cocaine, and she answered that one of her classmates did their "real world problem" project on the drug.

Alex's mother told Mineer she was "more frustrated now than before," feeling it was unfair that drugs were an appropriate topic for the school project, while gay rights was not.

"Please call me on this at any time," the mother wrote to Mineer on May 7, 2018. "Or, let me know if you'd rather I go to the district office to discuss this with them."

The mother made good on her word to contact the principal's superiors. Three days after emailing Mineer again, the mother contacted DVUSD school safety coordinator Frank expressing her outrage. She also alleged that her daughter was told to do a project on teen pregnancy instead.

"Are you kidding me? So, students can talk about sex and about drugs but [Alex] can't talk about gay pride?" the mother wrote. "This is absolutely not okay with me."

Reached via text message, Alex's mother confirmed that she emailed with Mineer and other school officials about her daughter's school project. She declined to comment further.

In an email, Mineer told New Times that LGBTQ pride was not the only issue that was prohibited for the sixth-grade project on "real world problems." She said students who wanted to do projects on abortion and sexually transmitted diseases were also asked to change their topic.

"This was the first time the teacher had attempted a project on real world problems and didn’t foresee the need to put boundaries on the topics," Mineer said. "When I learned of these topics, I shared with the teacher the importance of being age appropriate for all students in the classroom. Although some students would be very comfortable with the topics, there are many students and parents who would be uncomfortable with them."

She added: "There would be many parents uncomfortable with this content being introduced to their child."

Civil rights advocates have already criticized Norterra Canyon administration following two New Times articles articles on allegations of a toxic environment for LGBTQ students at the school. Multiple teachers and students told New Times that Mineer has forbidden them from talking about LGBTQ issues at school, deeming them inappropriate.

Some of the same advocates criticized the school again over Mineer's emails. Amanda Parris, a policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said the principal's bundling of sex, pornography, and sexual orientation as inappropriate topics raises concerning questions about student speech.

"Writing or talking about LGBTQ issues is no way the same thing as talking about sex," Parris said. "School officials should not pretend otherwise. Courts have repeatedly rejected the argument that talk about LGBTQ pride is inherently sexual or developmentally inappropriate for middle-schoolers. Likewise, courts have repeatedly rejected equating that with pornography."

Parris said Mineer's prohibition of students exploring LGBTQ topics presents First Amendment issues and said, "We're looking into that."

In a landmark opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students do not lose their free speech rights on school property. The opinion also stated that, in order for public schools to restrict student speech, they must demonstrate that the conduct in question would "materially and substantially interfere" with school operations.

Besides constitutional questions, Chevaleau said restricting speech on LGBTQ issues could harm LGBTQ students' well-being.

"As with anyone, but with LGBTQ students especially, when school leadership tries to censor these topics, they are removing the language children have to describe what they're experiencing," Chevaleau said in an email. "That is, by removing the vocabulary students have to talk about themselves, they are denying students the ability to be themselves."

In addition to the emails over Alex's project, the cache of emails shared with New Times also includes a message from Mineer to a children's magazine publishing company complaining about LGBTQ content in an article.

Mineer contacted Cricket Media in October 2017 after reading an issue of Cicada, a magazine for teens age 14 and older to which Norterra Canyon had a subscription. The principal said she was "shocked" to see "inappropriate language and content" in the issue, including multiple instances of the word "fuck" and "an article regarding sexual identity."

On the latter issue, Mineer wrote: "This topic is not an appropriate article for my middle school population and I would find it inappropriate for most. The topic of gender identity effects [sic] roughly 5-10% of the middle school students in our country and is no way something that we should expose 100% of our middle school students to in my school."

It's unclear where Mineer got her stats. It's also unclear what issue of Cicada Mineer was referring to in her email.

Cricket Media did not respond to a request for comment by deadline. But the children's magazine publisher has drawn accolades for publishing LGBTQ content. The associate editor of Spider, another magazine published by Cricket Media, recently told a blog: “As a queer person of color, it is very important to me that Spider shows a range of families and children.”

Mineer asked Cricket Media to cancel Norterra Canyon's subscription to Cicada and to replace it with a subscription to Ladybug, a magazine for kids age 3 to 5. "If you can not ensure that your publications will be child appropriate and contain clean content then it will become necessary to cancel all of our subscriptions," Mineer wrote.

Asked about her correspondence with Cricket Media, Mineer said in an email, "The content was not appropriate for the library of a K-8 grade campus."
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh