Shawnee Mission East’s Gay-Straight Alliance club released a statement on Instagram Oct. 5 condemning attacks against Olathe Northwest Gender-Sexuality Alliance students during ONW’s homecoming parade.
“As Lancers, we are committed to supporting all members of our community and embrace diversity,” senior and club president Daniel Long said in the statement. “Homophobia, transphobia, acts of bullying, discrimination and harassment in any form will not be tolerated. Olathe NW Ravens and SME Lancers are united in the values that our differences make us great.”
During the ONW homecoming parade on Sept. 21, Gender-Sexuality Alliance students were pelted candy as they walked the parade route. Other students hurled chants at them such as, “Make America Straight Again.”
The Olathe Northwest administration condemned the discriminatory incident and said the actions at the parade were, “absolutely not acceptable.”
Since the incident, a series of tweets and snapchats has continued the harassment, but others have created an outpouring of support. Junior Victoria Kepner, president of the ONW GSA, saw the support escalate on social media, but still struggled with the waves of posts calling them “leftovers nobody really wants.”
“Although it has inspired people to show support for the GSA, it has also inspired others to spread words about us being dramatic and over-sensitive,” Kepner said. “Then word of the incident spread around the school much quicker and people began to publicize their frustrations about the treatment of the GSA.”
Long has seen the culture of hate in his life via Instagram where an anonymous account left hateful comments such as, “Kill yourself” on several of his posts. The influence that social media can have over these situations is obvious in both a negative and a positive way according to Long.
“ONW could unify people who are hateful or share the same hateful or ignorant attitudes towards the LGBTQ community,” Long said. “In a positive sense, awareness of what happened at ONW, like what’s happening now, unifies groups who come together against hate and ignorance and promote messages of equality and safety. Jumping on these situations as soon as possible is the best way to create a positive response within social media and the community.”
Kepner, however, still feels unsafe while at school after the incident. The GSA had issues in the past with students using slurs, but none of them have ever experienced this level of aggression according to Kepner. For students who are a part of the GSA, going to school has been filled with not only stress from class, but fear of their peers as well.
“I do still feel fearful to mention that I’m a part of the GSA or anything that might hint at my sexual orientation,” Kepner said. “I used to be a lot louder and prouder about the work that we did, but now there’s always something in the back of my head reminding me of how many of my peers seemed to agree that the GSA was useless.”
The GSA and administration at East have made an effort to make sure that LGBTQ students don’t ever have to feel that they aren’t heard and welcomed, according to Long and principal Dr. John McKinney.
Long, over his four years at East, has developed a relationship between the GSA and the administration after meeting with him during his freshman year in an effort to try to create an environment at East that encourages acceptance and kindness.
“To me it is really important that we have a rapport and relationship and open communication,” McKinney said. “Four years ago I met with Daniel [Long] and a few of the GSA representatives at that time and said, “What can we do to ensure you feel safe […] and respected? That is what a healthy environment is about.”
ONW parent Cassandra Peters, leader of JoCo Q-Space, a safe haven for LGBTQ teens, was hesitant to send her children back to school in fear that they didn’t feel safe after being berated on Twitter. She wanted to ensure they felt comfortable going and making sure they had the option to call her and leave if necessary.
Peters attempted to raise awareness about the incident through a Facebook post where she brought attention to the impact it was having the students of Olathe NW, including her own child. The day of the parade, the response on Twitter and Snapchat was filled with students being called “ugly. Because of this Peters says that it, “made it so the fear and hurt continued 24/7.”
Despite this, Peters saw her Facebook post spread to the point where they were featured in a story on NBC and had 150 people at their Ally rally. In support of the GSA, one local business owner displayed a 30-foot rainbow flag while another brought a giant rainbow heart made out of balloons.
“It way exceeded my expectations to brighten these kids day,” Peters said. “A lot of them lined up across the street screaming thank you.”
Peters was still frustrated with how the incident was handled by the administration and along with several other parents attended a school board meeting to share personal stories in an attempt to garner more support for their children, but was met with little response.
The reaction Long got from his statement was similar. He and Peters both felt that the issues that they tried to bring to the table were “flying under the radar” in the East and Olathe Northwest communities. Though they saw the how social media was influencing the people in a positive way in their respective communities both struggled with the negative or lack of feedback they got from their audiences.