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Members of the Colorado State Board of Education pose for a photo with state education commissioner Katy Anthes. Top row, left to right: Rebecca McClellan, Lisa Escárcega, Steve Durham, Joyce Rankin.  Bottom row: Angelika Schroeder, Karla Esser, Anthes, Debora Scheffel.

In a 4-3 vote along party lines, the Colorado State Board of Education on Thursday elected to fully incorporate LGBTQ+ individuals at all grade levels of social studies instruction.

Board members Lisa Escárcega, Rebecca McClellan, Karla Esser and Angelika Schroeder — all Democrats — voted in favor of reinstating references to LGBTQ issues in Colorado’s revised social studies standards, seven months after they were removed in response to public backlash. Republican members Steve Durham, Joyce Rankin and Debora Scheffel voted “no.”

The vote served as the board’s final word in the long-running debate on how social studies should be taught in Colorado schools.

“This has been a long road,” said state education commissioner Katy Anthes. “We’ve been working on this for 12 months.”

For more than a year, state education leaders have debated how Colorado schools should apply the mandate set forth in House Bill 19-1192, “Inclusion of American Minorities in Teaching Civil Government.” Passed by the Colorado General Assembly in 2019, the legislation states, in part, that social studies and civics classes will include “the history, culture and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals within these minority groups.”

In accordance with the bill, the Social Studies Standards Review and Revision Committee presented its first draft of revision recommendations to the State Board of Education in November 2021.

But when the revisions were made available for public feedback, numerous concerns were raised about the appropriateness of referencing LGBTQ people in lower grades.

In an April interview with The Gazette, State Board of Education member Steve Durham expressed agreement with respondents who argued that lower-elementary discussion of LGBTQ issues would spark conversations about sex at too young an age — and in an inappropriate venue.

“What we’re trying to do is direct those discussions to the home where they belong and put parents in charge of their children’s education, particularly at these young ages,” said Durham, a Republican representing Colorado’s 5th Congressional District. “From my own perspective, I just could really not imagine what a conversation among children that age would look like, and I think most parents would agree with that.”

But LGBTQ advocate Alissa Smith of Inside Out Youth Services said such discussions are appropriate on all grade levels because they center on history and civics, not sex.

“What we’re seeing here is the thinking that LGBTQ identities are inherently sexual, which they are not,” Smith said.

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In April, the committee submitted a new revision that eliminated any references to queer people in social studies coursework for third grade and below.

Since then, LGBTQ students, advocates and allies have come out in droves to ask the board to reinstate the November 2021 revisions.

“Students that are not represented in (social studies) text have a higher dropout rate,” said District 11 elementary school teacher Angelica Givler. “It seems to me that making sure we include all students in our textbooks and libraries would help with engagement, comprehension and increased graduation rates. This needs to be true at all ages and grade levels.”

“As educators, we are committed, first and foremost, to creating educational spaces that are inclusive and offer students an environment without fear or intimidation, where they can learn and grow,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union.

Durham reiterated his concerns before Thursday’s vote, saying teaching “sexual issues” to lower-grade students is inappropriate and potentially harmful.

“To deny that these sorts of things happen, are happening, and that parents should be concerned about them, is a mistake,” he said. “To claim that this doesn’t open the door to abuse, I think, is also a mistake.”

“This is not about sexual education,” Escárcega countered. “It’s never been about that.”

Smith, whose organization rounded up nearly 1,000 signatures for an open letter to the board, was exultant upon hearing about the vote.

“This was a monumental effort across the state to make sure that these standards would be inclusive for the next six years,” Smith said. “It’s just really affirming that they heard our message, and they voted accordingly.”

The Colorado Education Association applauded the board’s decision in a news release.

“This will be welcome news to CEA's members and Colorado parents generally, who, research has shown, are more concerned with the real issues facing students and public schools — like a lack of funding and safety — than they are about distracting culture wars orchestrated by outside political interest groups.”

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