Angry emails, phone calls and social media comments were pouring into the Association of Independent Maryland & D.C. Schools in January.

Never before had the association’s popular annual “Belonging in Gender and Sexual Identity” workshop for private school educators and students generated such negative attention. That was until this year’s event unexpectedly attracted the gaze of national conservative media outlets and their audiences.

The scrutiny in recent weeks sent shockwaves through the nonprofit entrusted by the state with accrediting many of Maryland’s private schools, prompting leaders to cancel the conference out of concern for student safety.

It also reverberated through The St. Paul’s Schools, which were hosting the workshop on the 120-acre campus in Baltimore County. St. Paul’s administrators were soon facing a similar backlash of their own for a worksheet, which asking fifth graders to identify their gender and sexuality, among other things. A representative for The St. Paul’s Schools did not respond to requests for comment.

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AIMS leaders are determined to rebound from the fallout and say their work remains critically important. They are counseling member schools like St. Paul’s on navigating public discourse concerning gender identity and sexuality while remaining true to their mission. And they’re asking themselves a question: What have we learned from all this?

“We’re living in a challenging era for children and for adults,” said Peter Baily, AIMS executive director. “We’re all working very hard to meet the moment and do the best we can for our students.”

Although public schools have long been a battlefield for American culture wars, heated debates are playing out similarly in private school communities across the country. Even as Americans lack consensus on how and when to talk to students about gender identity and sexuality, educators must find a path forward. That challenge has grown particularly fraught with the rise of groups like Moms For Liberty, who seek to remove certain books they deem sexually explicit from classroom and library shelves.

Maryland’s independent schools design their own programming and curriculum to be consistent with their mission and educational ethos. AIMS does not require schools to teach about sexuality or gender diversity as part of the accreditation protocol.

“Within the broad category of health education for students, an independent school has significant latitude in terms of what it teaches, when it teaches and how it teaches it,” Baily said.

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About 25 years ago, the nonprofit’s leadership saw a need for professional development geared toward helping LGBTQ+ students feel safe and welcome in the classroom. Educators at the time wanted to learn how to minimize mental health risks and identify warning signs of children who are struggling.

Research suggests schools can be hostile environments for these students, potentially worsening mental health and educational outcomes. The advocacy group GLSEN surveyed more than 22,000 LGBTQ+ students between ages 13 and 21 during the 2021-22 academic year. Nearly all of the students reported hearing the word “gay” used in a negative way, and about 94% of them said it distressed them. The findings were similar when it came to gender identity, with about 92% reporting having heard negative remarks about gender expression.

Education has evolved a lot in the 25 years since the Maryland independent school association began offering its gender and sexuality workshop, Baily said. For one thing, organizers no longer use the workshop’s original name “Making Schools Safe” out of sensitivity for the rise in school shootings. The programming’s latest title, “Belonging in Gender and Sexual Identity,” has also proved to be triggering, Baily said.

“There is, among a certain group of concerned parents, a belief that issues of gender expression and sexuality are not the appropriate purview of school conversation, discussion and deliberation,” he said. “What happened this year ... frankly, it’s never happened before in 25 years.”

The 2024 workshop was just weeks away when The National Desk, a daily television news program produced by the conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, published a story on Jan. 18 with details of the event. The story was published under Sinclair’s K-12 education segment called “Crisis in the Classroom,” which describes itself on social media as advocating for parents nationwide. The segment airs on more than 70 local news stations across the country.

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The coverage stated the workshop had sparked concerns over priorities in education without quoting anyone affiliated with the school community. It did include comments given by a spokesperson for the conservative think tank Defense of Freedom Institute for Policy Study.

On the same day, St. Paul’s president Clark Wight sent a memo to the schools’ community noting that misinformation about the conference was spreading on social media. The annual meeting was supposed to be an affinity space for students who identify as LGBTQ+ and their allies to share community, support one another and discuss ways to forge more inclusive school environments, he said in the memo. And it was scheduled for a professional development day when classes would not be in session.

A few days later on Jan. 23, another wave of negative media attention washed over the St. Paul’s schools — this time concerning a worksheet.

Social media accounts for Project Veritas, a far-right organization known for deceptively edited videos of undercover sting operations, tweeted a photo of a questionnaire it said was distributed in the fall to a fifth grade class at St. Paul’s School for Boys.

The wrinkled worksheet titled “identity inventory” asked students to describe themselves according to age, family structure, gender, cognitive ability, physical ability, race and ethnicity, religion, sexuality and other interests. The instructions told students to leave categories blank if they did not feel comfortable sharing certain information.

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In an unsigned email to The Banner, Project Veritas representatives said a source from the school provided the nonprofit outlet with the worksheet and that multiple parents whose children received the questionnaire had authenticated it.

“Project Veritas reports on a variety of topics that the public has a right to know,” the email said. “In this case, we brought to light concerns from families who pay $38K+/annually in tuition and felt violated by what St. Paul’s now admits are questionable educational decisions.”

Wight emailed families again, this time asking for kindness and inclusion.

“The St. Paul’s community is not insulated from the political and cultural difference that threaten to pull apart our country,” Wight said in the message. He invited families to share feedback with the administration.

Two days later, the independent schools’ president sent out one more message. St. Paul’s culture was one of high tolerance for civil discourse and disagreement, he said.

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“What we cannot tolerate is hate speech or bigotry in any form,” Wight wrote. The Baltimore County schools had within a matter of days become the target of vicious attacks on social media centered around gender and sexuality.

Wight this time addressed the worksheet directly. The social identity exercise, which was done with students in the upper school and boys’ middle school, was supposed to help kids better understand their own identities as well as what makes other people unique. The papers were not collected, nor were students compelled to share their answers, he said.

Wight doubled down on the institution’s full support for LGBTQ+ students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni. However, the feedback solicited in an earlier memo had since prompted school leaders to examine more age-appropriate methods as well as how and when gender- and sexuality-related topics are introduced.

As details of the fallout spread, an anonymous blog post appeared on the far-right blog taking issue with the school’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The blog post attracted the attention of Maryland lawmaker Del. Nino Mangione. The Republican representing portions of Baltimore County shared it on his social media account, claiming it was an example of a liberal education establishment indoctrinating children.

“I do not see any redeemable value of discussing this type of overly sexualized agenda with children,” Mangione said in an interview this month.

The lawmaker said the private school overstepped in not giving parents the right to opt their child out of the worksheet’s identity exercise. Parents are not the enemy of a good education, but they have a right to know what their children are being taught, he said.

“Parents are the ones who should be discussing matters of sexual identity, gender identity,” Mangione said. “The classroom is not the place for those discussions, especially for fifth graders.”

On Valentine’s Day, a petition calling for St. Paul’s to “disavow DEI indoctrination” appeared online on The Banner’s efforts to reach the petition organizers were not successful. The website temporarily took down the petition this month pending a review from content moderators, who are tasked with making sure content is consistent with community guidelines, according to a spokesperson.

Baily said the decision to cancel the workshop was a difficult one that weighed on AIMS leadership. Some member schools told the executive director they wished event organizers had forged ahead despite the opposition. Officials have since assembled a small committee to reenvision the workshop amid the fallout. They’re considering whether to hold the program off of school grounds or break the programming into smaller events.

Five years from now, Baily hopes he’ll look back and remember what happened in 2024 as a pivotal moment for Maryland’s independent school network. Many of the member institutions have weathered world wars, pandemics and civil unrest. Educators, he said, will always need to navigate change.

“It’s complicated, it’s varied, it’s sometimes a little bit messy,” he said. “But in that sense, it’s a lot like life.”

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