Teacher Attacks Trans Students’ Identities With Bigoted Letter
Author: Christopher Wiggins
A teacher in South Dakota with more than 30 years of experience is coming under fire one month before his planned retirement after images of a bigoted letter he distributed to a group of transgender high school students became public on social media. Now, as parents are calling for the conservative school’s administration to act, at least one family has chosen to withdraw from the school.
On Monday, Ashley Bakke was napping when she received a text message from her son, Alex Bryant, with a picture of a letter that took her a moment to understand.
At first, blaming her nap for not being able to believe her eyes, Bakke quickly realized that she was looking at an attack on her transgender son by the German teacher at Watertown High School, Calvin Hillesland.
According to multiple students and parents, Hillesland approached a group of four transgender students who were eating in the school’s cafeteria. He gave the students each a letter and some chocolate, witnesses told The Advocate.
The encounter left the 14 and 15-year-olds confused, upset, disappointed, and angry.
Another parent, who also received a text from their transgender child, tweeted a photo of the letter.
It begins “Dear” and then addresses the student by their deadname.
“When you asked me to call your friends by masculine names, and I started trying to do that, I was wrong. It was a lie,” it continues. “Well, biologically, every cell in your body is [female] feminine. That’s the biological truth.”
The letter concludes, “The candy is a symbol of the sweetness that I hope and pray you’ll discover.”
Bakke says her son immediately snapped a picture and headed to the guidance counselor’s office, but wasn’t able to speak with anybody, so she went to the school to get answers herself.
She says two minutes after handing an aide the letter, the principal came out and spoke to her for about 15 minutes without giving her the impression that the officials were taking the incident seriously.
She tells The Advocate that it appeared to her that the principal, Brad Brandsrud, seemed unprepared to be confronted with the issue. However, he did indicate that he and Hillesland had talked about the letters in advance, she says.
At the end of the letter, Hillesland refers to an included DVD that will “explain everything more clearly than I can” but he didn’t actually end up handing out a DVD with the letters — only tubes of Toblerone chocolate, according to Lee Bruns, a 54-year-old machinist, whose nonbinary child was among the students who received the message.
“[Brandsrud] told me that the teacher misunderstood and thought it wasn’t OK to hand out the DVD, but the letters were fine,” Bakke says. “So it was definitely something those two had talked about before [the letter] was ever handed out.”
Bakke says after witnessing the school’s reaction, she gave her son the power to decide on whether to return.
In a text message obtained by The Advocate, school officials alerted subscribers that a “faculty member attempted to open a conversation about the students’ gender identity.”
Bakke says she gave her son the option not to return to Watertown High School and that he has chosen to continue his education online.
“I told him that if this had happened at work, I would consider not returning and because I respect him I want him to have that choice.”
Some of the other children reported the incident to their parents, but some parents who spoke to The Advocate are concerned not all kids have receptive and supportive parents.
“The four trans kids were scared at first and didn’t speak up,” Bruns says.
Heather Hoffman, whose 14-year-old transgender son, Kai Price, also received the letter says the shock was big for her son because Hillesland is one of his favorite teachers.
“This was somebody he trusted and spoke to about these things and respected, and to be attacked that way in such a negative light has affected [my son] a lot,” she explains.
“The community is well aware of the recent tragic news of a local nonbinary child taking their life which led to the creation of the nonprofit advocacy group Watertown Love,” Hoffman says.
Amy Rambow, who runs Watertown Love, and her 17-year-old transgender son, Alex, opened their home to students upset by Monday’s developments. Alex, who is a student at the same school but didn’t receive a letter, says he fears an increase in this type of behavior given the political climate.
Amy Rambow says it was amazing having a house full of kids Tuesday evening, who were supporting each other.
The two are local heroes in the South Dakota LGBTQ+ community. Alex Rambow, who goes to Watertown High School, led a protest at the school Tuesday in solidarity with the transgender students. He and his mother confronted Gov. Kristi Noem earlier this year after the South Dakota governor signed anti-trans legislation into law. The Rambows also were featured in the HBO Max series We’re Here.
South Dakota is among the recent Republican-led states that passed laws attacking the LGBTQ+ community. South Dakota’s law bans “divisive concepts” from being discussed in classrooms.
Asked about his role as an administrator and the appropriateness of Hillesland’s actions, Brandsrud directed The Advocate to the district superintendent’s office but added, “I know this recent event has touched upon the emotions of many. It is my obligation to our students, faculty, and community that we provide a safe environment in which our students can learn.”
Watertown School District superintendent Jeff Danielsen told The Advocate in an email that he could not discuss the matter but that the district is “investigating the situation.”
Several students told The Advocate that Hillesland hasn’t been teaching in the building since Wednesday.
It is unclear whether Hillesland will be permitted to retire after the school year concludes next month or whether he will face any repercussions for his actions at all.
Last year, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote in The Advocate that his department stands with LGBTQ+ students.
In response to a request for comment for this story, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Education said in a statement, “The U.S. Department of Education and the Biden-Harris Administration stand with LGBTQI+ students and families across the country.
“Laws around the country have targeted and sought to bully some of our most vulnerable students and families, as well as create division in our schools. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has been very vocal about his support for all students, including LGBTQI+ students. This Administration won’t stand for bullying or discrimination of any kind, and the Department will use its authorities to protect, support, and provide opportunities for LGBTQI+ students and all students.”
According to the spokesperson, parents with concerns about their child’s school may make complaints with the department’s Office for Civil Rights by clicking here.
If you or someone you know are feeling distressed, call the National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-8255. If you are an LGBTQ+ youth and need help, you can reach out to the Trevor Project at (866) 488-7386 or text 678678 to talk to someone 24/7.
Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Christopher Wiggins