Jollee Patterson, the Portland Public Schools’ general counsel, sent a letter recently to WW and Oregon Women Lawyers, blasting WW for its cover story last week on Lincoln High School’s cheerleading team.
Here’s Patterson’s letter, dated Dec. 18:
I have grave concerns about your article about one of our transgendered students. At Portland Public schools, we take very seriously our responsibility to provide a safe, welcoming environment to our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning students. In particular,our transgendered students are increasingly coming forward to embrace their identity and ask for a school enviromnent that does the same, and we welcome this trend.
Unfottunately, the message Willamette Week has sent to transgendered students is that if your story is interesting enough, you risk being outed to the entire city. Being featured in WW is tough enough, I would imagine, for most adults; imagine how it must be for a young high school student already facing the challenges of being transgendered. You even acknowledge in your story that this student’s mother was trying to shield her from publicity, yet nonetheless you published her distinctive first name and put her picture on the cover.
As we are all aware, our GLBTQ students already face serious risks of drop-out and suicide. I was sorry to see WW – which I’ve read for years and have much respect for – create another barrier for these students to feel safe and welcome in our schools and our city. I hope any future articles on this important subject focus on adults and leave students with a zone of safety and privacy.
I also encourage people to read articles about students with caution, recognizing that student privacy rules severely limit the information schools can provide that might balance the story and provide additional context.
Jollee Patterson, General Counsel/Board Secretary
Portland Public Schools
Here’s a response by the story’s author, WW reporter Beth Slovic:
As the author of the story about the Lincoln cheerleading team, I’d like to take the opportunity to respond to Ms. Patterson’s letter.
I would agree with Patterson that the subject matter of my story is a delicate one requiring discretion and context. Where we clearly disagree is Patterson’s implication that we should not have written this story. Youth and gender identity is a hugely important issue that is largely underreported and, dare I say, covered up. As I reported in my story:
“Jenn Burleton is executive director of TransActive, a Portland group that advocates for families with transgender children. Burleton’s group estimates one out of 250 children born today doesn’t conform strictly to society’s definitions of gender. One in 500 will identify as transgender. She says the degree to which the local media have danced around this issue is a disservice to the community.
“To not cover this story continues to sweep under the rug the negative impact that gender policing has on our most precious treasure, which is our children,” Burleton says. “There was an old phrase in the gay community…that is still very true: Invisibility equals death.”
The issue is not, as Patterson would have it, whether we report the story or not. It is instead how the story is handled. In our newsroom, we spent an enormous amount of time discussing exactly this. We discussed how to treat the story, which photos to use and not to use, and which reporting to include and which to leave out. (It’s worth pointing out that I spoke with Superintendent Carole Smith and her chief of staff about this story one week before we published it. Smith did not ask me to back off. Instead, she told me how gender identity was an issue she had confronted during her professional career many times.)
I appreciate that some readers may disagree with our choices, but to suggest we published this story without an enormous amount of consideration is flatly wrong.
Patterson criticizes my story for the way in which we called attention to Alonza. I would like to point out that, prior to our story, Alonza appeared twice on local TV news (where she was identified by her first and last name) discussing her dismissal from the cheerleading team and claiming that it was because of racism. Shortly after our story was published, Alonza appeared on KOIN-TV, talking about her dismissal from the team and discussing, quite openly, her gender identity.
The number of transgender children in our school system is far higher than the average Portlander would expect. Until we start talking about this, our schools and our state will struggle with embracing these students as they deserve.
I’d encourage everyone to read the story. If you do, you’ll learn how Washington is ahead of Oregon in establishing policies to encourage transgender students to participate in school sports. That’s a real barrier we in Oregon should be talking about. But we won’t if we can’t even begin to discuss the issue.