Teacher fundraising to bring LGBTQ training to Greeley

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GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — Kelly Cook has been teaching in Greeley for 16 years and feels she's always been an ally for her students. But Cook recently realized she hasn't been doing enough.

Last summer, Cook went to a seminar run by two women at the University of Colorado Boulder: A Queer Endeavor.

"It changed my life," she said. "When you're 40 and something changes your life you sit up and pay attention."

As she was driving home after the training, she thought, "This needs to come to Greeley." So she began a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise $3,000 to pay for the training to come to town. Anything raised over the goal, she said, will go toward teacher scholarships, so she can waive the $40 fee for those who need it.

"I know that teachers want to protect their kids," she said.

The way students are treated by their classmates and sometimes their teachers if they are open about their identities at school can cause a lot of pain, Cook said. This year, the Denver Post reported a 9-year old died by suicide after coming out as gay over the summer and then facing bullying at school in the fall. His death reflects a rise in youth deaths by suicide.

Cook said she knows teachers can have an effect on students feeling safe and supported at school, and she said she hopes one day all teachers will create inclusive environments in their classrooms that may help a student avoid death by suicide.

"Sometimes their emotions are so intense it becomes an emergency, and they just need to get past that emergency," she said.

Cook said she hopes students will know there are teachers whose doors are always open to them if they feel like they're in a bad place emotionally. The training, Cook said, can help teachers know how best to create a safe place for their students to go.

"There's not very many teachers who don't want to keep their kids from those really dark places when they feel alone," she said.

She's fundraising, she said, because the University of Northern Colorado is already facing budget challenges and Greeley-Evans School District 6 has its money committed to other needed programs and projects.

So far, more than half her donors are former students of hers.

"That just makes me bawl," she said.

A Queer Endeavor works to give teachers tools to be active in their inclusion of LGBTQ students. Though Cook said she's always tried to curtail the use of the word "gay" as an insult and tries to respond to students who ask for support, the training taught her ways to be more active and less reactive.

It's small things sometimes, she said, that can have a big impact, like introducing herself the first day of class with her preferred pronouns (she/her/hers), and giving her students a chance to identify theirs if they want to on a "getting to know you" survey.

In the course of her 16 years of teaching at Frontier Academy and the UNC, Cook said she has seen progress as students feel increasingly comfortable being open about the gender and sexual identities at school, but she still knows students who have come out only to her and are still hiding from classmates and, in some cases, their families.

The training can help teachers make that space available, so students know they at least have one person they can go to in the district.

Though she is expecting some backlash for encouraging the training, Cook said the majority of teachers just want to make sure all their students are as safe and welcome as they can be in their classrooms.

"We're not asking teachers to put down their religious beliefs," she said. "The goal is to say all students are safe, period."

If enough teachers attend the training, Cook said, she hopes they can encourage one another and their school communities to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students. She has faith, she said, that Greeley will make those efforts.

"Teachers are all mama bears and papa bears of their students," she said.

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