Education Opinion

Tacoma School District’s Journey: The Apology to Mr. Gaylord

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 17, 2014 5 min read
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Our guest blogger is Mr. Kurt Miller, the President of the Tacoma School District Board of Education who offered Mr. Gaylord an apology for his being fired 4 decades earlier. While conducting research for our #tbt entitled Fired for Being Gay we wondered about the process taken by the Board of Education and the Tacoma School District resulting in the acknowledgment that firing Mr. Gaylord was unjust and deserved a public apology. Here, Mr. Miller explains the steps taken.

Around Thanksgiving, 42 years ago, the assistant principal from Wilson High School walked up the steps to a front porch and knocked on Jim Gaylord’s door to ask him a question that would change his life forever. Jim was asked if he was gay. After a slight hesitation he answered yes.

In 1972, Mr. Jim Gaylord was fired from his position as a history teacher at Wilson High School. More than 12 years of service for the school and excellent evaluations were not enough to keep his job. His only offense was being gay at a time when being so was viewed as immoral. After the Washington State Supreme Court upheld the firing the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. While the 1972 decision to terminate Mr. Gaylord was within the bounds of the laws as they existed at the time, it does not reflect the values and morals of the District now or the values of Tacoma.

Forty-two years later an apology was made to Mr. Gaylord with the request coming from an unlikely source. In early July 2014, I was attending the Bridge Builder meeting at the Oasis Youth Center, an organization that serves LGBTQ young people. Just before the meeting Seth Kirby the Director of Oasis, started telling me about the “Conversation” that some young people were going to do during the Proud Outloud celebration in a week and a half. Several gay and lesbian adults were interviewed and their stories would be shared with an audience at Stadium High School. One of the students interviewed Mr. Gaylord and after hearing his story and asked Seth if it was possible if the school district could offer an apology for what Mr. Gaylord experienced. That led to Seth asking me if the school district could apologize.

While a teacher at Wilson High School many of Jim’s fellow teachers were not aware of his sexual orientation. He kept his private life separate from his school life. One day a young man who attended Wilson H.S. approached him to discuss the his (the student’s) attraction to other boys. Jim spoke with the boy and saw no need to share his own orientation with the student.

The student subsequently attemtped suicide. During the investigation the student told the police that he had spoken to Mr. Gaylord and shared their conversation. That is what precipitated the visit by the assistant principal. On November 21st, Jim received a letter from the school board that read, in part:

The specific probable cause for your discharge is that you have admitted occupying a public status that is incompatible with the conduct required of teachers in this district. Specifically, that you have admitted being a publicly known homosexual.

When I heard his story I was appalled and told Seth that there should be an apology but I needed to check with others before I could make that decision. Because it was summer and many people were on vacation I sent an email to Superintendent Carla Santorno asking about what would need to be done to make an apology and whether the district was liable for something that happened so long ago. By the end of the day I received the answer I wanted to hear. When I received the response I told Seth that not only could we offer an apology, we would the following Sunday.

The Board did not have any meetings scheduled until after the Sunday event. Because of that I contacted the individual members and asked if they had any concerns about the apology and the response was what I expected. They were very supportive of the apology. All but two of them, out of a total of five who sit on the board, said they were available that day and asked if we could stand side by side together on the stage while I gave the apology.

At the July 24th meeting the board passed a resolution affirming the apology made to Mr. Gaylord. One of our directors had actually been a student of Mr. Gaylord’s when she was a senior at the school. She was asked to read the resolution at the meeting, thereby completing a loop that had been left open for so long.

Our values were affirmed most recently, before we became aware of the story about Mr. Gaylord. The School Board passed a revised Student Nondiscrimination and Equity Policy at the June 26th, meeting, which states in part:

The Tacoma School District affirms the inherent dignity and the equal rights of every student. It acknowledges the need to provide for every student a quality education that includes appreciation and respect for human individuality, cultural differences, and similarities that contribute to our democratic nation as a whole. Every student deserves a respectful learning environment in which their racial, ethnic, religious, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability diversity is valued and contributes to successful academic outcomes. Learning and work environments are enriched and improved by the contributions, perspectives and presence of diverse participants. The district is committed to the success of every student in each of our schools.

As the district addresses academic excellence, partnership and safety within our strategic goals for all students, we continue to support LGBTQ students and staff. The District has developed a great relationship with OASIS and works collaboratively to educate, learn and grow together to support students. Currently there are 7 High Schools with Gay Straight Alliance Clubs and a few middle schools are beginning their own clubs as well.

Forty-two years later, we cannot make up for the mistakes of an unfortunate past, but we can at least acknowledge them and let those affected know that regret doesn’t end when the old guard moves on.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.