Flowers from gay teacher's husband spark controversy in District 301
When music teacher Nathan Etter received a bouquet of Valentine's Day flowers in his classroom, it piqued students' curiosity.
A student asked whether the flowers were from Etter's wife. He responded, "No, it's from my husband."
This response elicited reactions of "ew" and "gross" from some first-graders at Prairie View Grade School in Elgin. It prompted Etter to make it a "teachable moment."
He talked to students about respect and tolerance, and explained how some families have same-sex parents. He asked, "just because something is different, should we be disrespectful? And they said, 'no,' and we moved on with our lesson."
Etter said he spent less than 30 seconds on the topic. But a parent of one student raised concerns with district officials about what transpired.
A week later, Etter said, he was called in to the principal's office for a talk with a union representative present, "which completely scared me."
"What our district leaders wanted to convey to me was to 'stick to the curriculum.' I took that as a verbal warning," said Etter, 30, of Palatine, a first-year elementary music teacher. "I'm an untenured teacher, so they don't have to necessarily have a reason to not invite me back next school year to teach."
Etter and a union representative emailed district faculty and staff members and accused school leaders of treating him in a "discriminatory manner," officials said.
Central Unit District 301 Superintendent Todd Stirn and school board President Jeff Kellenberger have responded with an open letter April 12 stressing the Burlington-based district's commitment to diversity and respect. Officials said the principal's meeting with Etter was to learn more about that classroom discussion and no further action was taken.
"We want to emphasize the unwavering commitment of our board and administration to ensuring that our school community is consistently respectful and accepting of diversity amongst our students, faculty and staff. While we have strong diversity and inclusion policies and practices in place, we can always learn and improve. We want to state clearly that discrimination, harassment, exclusion or intimidation in any form are unacceptable and will not be tolerated in District 301," officials wrote.
Dozens of students, parents and union members showed up at Monday night's school board meeting to show support for Etter. Kellenberger told parents Etter's job was never in jeopardy and assured them the matter was resolved.
Etter said while Stirn apologized for the situation, officials haven't explained what "stick to the curriculum" means.
"I personally take that to mean don't talk about being gay," he said adding, he hopes to meet with Stirn soon. "I just want to make sure this doesn't happen to any student, parent or teacher who is of the LGBTQ community or who is diverse in any other way."