Conner Cook walked up to the podium at Rocklin Unified School District's board meeting. Fighting back tears, Cook, who identifies as gay, began to tell of the hardships he had faced because of his sexuality in his 13 years as a student in the district, including being followed home and threatened with a knife. But, Cook said, he didn't show to talk about himself.
"It's a different experience entirely to see this reinvigorated plague of hatred and ignorance spread in the form of complacency through a district office that supposedly prioritizes the ensured safety of all students, faculty, and family members....and it's despicable," Cook said.
Along with about 30 others, Cook attended Wednesday nights' board meeting in support of Amy Estes, a lesbian middle school teacher who said homophobic cyberbullying drove her out of the classroom. Attendees used the board meeting's public comment forum as an opportunity not only to defend Estes, but also to call out the prejudice many felt has been exposed in the community.
"I'm tired of my identity being dismissed and reduced to another political issue, subject for intense debate," Cook said.
Others quickly followed Cook.
A rising high school freshman approached the podium, her father beside her, to share that a middle school employee equated a rainbow Pride flag she had brought to school with Nazi regalia. Claire Buckley, the Director of Finance and Operations for the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, warned officials that queer students are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers.
And Alice Watkins, a former teacher, reminded those listening of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church protests the town fought back against in April.
In some ways, Watkins said, what happened to Estes is "typically Rocklin." In September of last year, a school board meeting became a forum for similar complaints as the board debated whether or not to allow a book about a transgender child to be read in kindergarten.
Estes, who filed a discrimination complaint against the school district with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, said that school officials did not appropriately address her complaints of harassment.
Although Estes did not attend the board meeting, her partner, Amy Kronson, came in her stead.
"The huge show of support for (Estes) echoes what we've been hearing in our personal lives," said Kronson.
After listening to public comments, School Board President Todd Lowell detailed policies the school district has in place to prevent and respond to harassment.
"The stories you heard tonight or heard in the media about alleged harassment of a teacher by students is only one side of the story," Lowell said.
Diana Capra, Chief of Communications and Community Engagement for the district, said the district would follow up with attendees and that the district is rolling out a "comprehensive plan for creating more inclusive schools." Capra said the plan would be formally rolled out at the beginning of the next school year, though the district has already begun working with staff to improve the way they interrupt instances of intolerance.
Still, the changes may not come fast enough for Estes, who is on mental health leave. She has said she is unsure whether she wants to continue teaching, let alone in Rocklin.