Lesbian student’s courage prevails over bigotry by Kansas middle school principal and bus driver

By: - August 1, 2021 4:00 am

A bus driver and middle school principal for the North Lyon County school district sexually harassed 8th grader Izzy Dieker, center, for saying “I’m a lesbian” during a Jan. 27 bus ride. Her stepmother, Tasha Cooper, and father, Daniel Dieker, supported the 14-year-old as she spoke out about the discrimination. (Zach DeLoach/Emporia Gazette)

TOPEKA — Kristi Gadino didn’t appear to be bothered by the “shockingly profane” language used by middle school students on her bus.

An investigator who reviewed video of a Jan. 27 bus ride home from North Lyon County Elementary School wrote in her report that boys and girls could be heard saying “gay-assed motherf***er,” “jerk me off, daddy,” “touch my d***,” “f***ing n*****,” “what the f***,” “kill you,” “stop putting your f***ing camera in my face” and “wants to have sex,” all within earshot of kids as young as kindergartners.

But when 8th-grader Izzy Dieker told her friend, “I’m a lesbian,” Gadino stopped the bus and confronted the 14-year-old about her use of inappropriate language. The bus driver’s reaction and inaccurate account, principal Corey Wiltz’s decision to suspend Dieker and the girl’s determination to stand up for herself would divide supportive students and faculty from those within the school who harbored anti-LGBTQ hatred of Dieker.

Three teachers, a social worker, volleyball coach and cook resigned in the weeks that followed, and the school board fired a library aide who spoke to a reporter and distributed rainbow pins for teachers to wear at school.

In May, an attorney for the Kansas Association of School Boards concluded in an investigative report that Wiltz and Gadino punished Dieker because of their disdain for her sexual orientation, a violation of federal Title IX protections against discrimination on the basis of sex.

“It made me really happy that the truth got out there,” Dieker said, “because Wiltz and the bus driver hadn’t been very truthful about the whole thing, and it was kind of messing up everything.”

Wiltz left his position at the end of the school year, and the board accepted Gadino’s resignation at its July 14 meeting. Wiltz made the decision to leave in late January, having accepted a job as an assistant high school principal and athletic director in Emporia. After the details of the investigative report became public in May, the Emporia school board rescinded his contract.

All Dieker wanted was for the North Lyon County school district to provide anti-discrimination training for staff and make the Title IX complaint process more transparent.

“What she wants to see happen are changes put into place that would prevent this from happening again in the future, and that would protect other students that are in her same position,” said Sharon Brett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, the district has agreed to Dieker’s requests.

 

A report by Angela Stallbaumer, an attorney for the Kansas Association of School Boards, concluded that North Lyon County Elementary School principal Corey Wiltz and bus driver Kristi Gadino sexually harassed Izzy Dieker, an 8th-grade student. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Seven-letter word

Dieker and Gadino provided different accounts of what happened on the bus, with the driver falsely accusing the girl of using profanity and refusing to obey an order to move to the front.

Wiltz doubled down on his discipline of Dieker after realizing the bus driver’s dishonesty, and made it clear he considered “lesbian” to be a vulgar word.

“It’s been really stressful, to be honest, and it kind of impacted my whole school life,” Dieker said.

The truth emerged in a May 6 report by Angela Stallbaumer, the KASB attorney who reviewed video from the bus. The atmosphere on the bus was “quite chaotic,” Stallbaumer wrote.

A loud, rambunctious group of older students gathered in the back of the bus, with younger students in the front.

“As a parent of two elementary school students and one middle school student that ride the bus myself, I found the language used by this group to be shockingly profane and inappropriate for the school or bus setting,” Stallbaumer wrote. “It pained me to think that students Izzy’s age even knew, let alone utilized, the language they did with such frequency and ease, and it was especially troubling that they were allowed to do so in close proximity to younger, impressionable students.”

The attorney observed students leaning into the walkway, turning around, and in frequent motion, all violations of school bus policy.

“At one point, one of the boys stands up, facing the rear of the bus while it is in motion, points to the students (including Izzy) who were around and behind his seat with his water bottle one by one and says ‘f*** you, f*** you, f*** you’ to each in turn,” Stallbaumer wrote.

None of this activity apparently troubled Gadino. Nine minutes into the video, Dieker can be heard saying in a voice no louder than other students, “I’m a lesbian.”

The bus driver tells Dieker, “Stop now.” Dieker says, “It’s true.”

“I don’t care,” Gadino tells her. “Watch your language.”

“Yes,” Dieker responds. “I speak English.”

The driver pulls over 40 seconds later and walks to the back of the bus to address Dieker.

Gadino: “Front row.”

Dieker: “I didn’t say anything.”

Gadino: “Really? Who said they were lesbian?”

Dieker: “Wasn’t anything wrong with that.”

Gadino: “I’ve got little kids up here. Do you think these little kindergarteners need to know what that word means?”

The video shows Dieker followed the driver to the front of the bus. The girl didn’t use profanity at any point.

It was pervasive in that it was not an isolated problem with one staff member but seemed to permeate her school environment over time.

– Angela Stallbaumer, KASB attorney

Later that afternoon, the driver called Wiltz, the principal, to tell him Dieker had used the phrase “I’m a f***ing lesbian” and didn’t comply when asked to move to the front of the bus. Gadino filled out a bus conduct infractions report and checked boxes for disobeying the driver, using unacceptable language, and rude behavior.

“Izzy was using improper language, when asked 2x to stop she used improper language again,” the bus driver wrote in her citation. “Then delayed drivers request to move to front.”

Wiltz called Dieker’s father to let him know she was suspended from riding the bus. The principal said he was concerned about her use of the word “lesbian” in front of younger students.

The next day, a social worker noticed Dieker crying in the hallway and heard her version of the story. The social worker confronted Wiltz, who said he had not watched the video. He didn’t watch it until the following afternoon, at the end of the two-day suspension.

Wiltz met with Dieker after viewing the video, and reiterated that it was inappropriate to talk about being a lesbian. Dieker said the principal also complained that her parents “thought they could call the shots,” but Wiltz denied to the investigator that he made the comment.

Dieker walked away from the meeting upset. A concerned teacher confronted Wiltz and asked: “If she had said, ‘I am straight,’ would we be here?”

“No,” Wiltz told the teacher, “because it’s not inappropriate.”

Stallbaumer concluded Wiltz and Gadino were both responsible for sexual harassment of the student. Their actions “reflected that they fundamentally disapproved of her sexual orientation and, quite possibly, her as well,” the attorney wrote.

When a school official tells a student that her defining characteristic is vulgar, Stallbaumer wrote, “the student would likely internalize their disgust and general disapproval.”

The attack on Dieker’s sexual orientation was personal and severe, Stallbaumer wrote.

“It was pervasive in that it was not an isolated problem with one staff member but seemed to permeate her school environment over time,” Stallbaumer wrote. “And it was objectively offensive, as it caused Izzy, her friends, and school staff members supporting her to feel deeply hurt, upset, and angry.”

The attorney reminded the school district that it has a duty to protect individuals who participated in the KASB investigation. Stallbaumer recommended disciplinary action for Gadino and Wiltz, and training for staff.

 

In search of a safe space

Boys at school tormented Dieker with homophobic comments during class.

Some students took the principal’s side, “which kind of shocked me,” Dieker said. She had never encountered anti-LGBTQ hatred before.

“I understand not everybody’s gonna like it, because, you know, everybody has their own opinions on what they don’t like and whatever,” Dieker said. “But I didn’t think it would get to this extent, especially at school, because you go there and you learn and you think that, ‘Oh, this is a safe place.’

The ACLU of Kansas, in a letter to the school district, said Dieker was deeply harmed by this discrimination. She felt shamed and humiliated, and was fearful to ride the bus with Gadino.

Dieker had to switch to a different classroom, where the students and teacher were more supportive, to escape relentless bullying. Her parents continued to drive her to school for two weeks after her suspension ended, before the district agreed to switch bus drivers’ routes to avoid further conflict between Dieker and Gadino.

Patrick Stevenson, a 6th-grade teacher, resigned in March after five years with the district. Dieker was one of his favorite students, and the teacher clashed with Wiltz on numerous issues.

“I love the kid because she is so stinking smart,” Stevenson said. “And I love people that speak their mind respectfully, and she does. She’ll disagree, respectfully, but she has great points when she does. And I just love the heck out of her for just being as strong as she is. A lot of kids got a lot of strength out of Izzy Dieker, let me tell you that — and some teachers.”

Stevenson said boys at the school were “mouthing off,” telling LGBTQ jokes and expressing anti-LGBTQ religious views. The boys felt empowered to bully her, Stevenson said, because Wiltz had gotten away with discrimination.

I think it happens probably weekly in schools all around Kansas, especially the rural areas where these biases are very persuasive and these words are very taboo. People just ignore it. People who experience it just want it to go away.

– Liz Hamor, of Equality Kansas

Michael Lanzrath, a library aide, offered public support for Dieker.

“I really just wanted to let Izzy know that there are people that absolutely support her,” Lanzrath told KSNT-TV. “Our job as educators is to make sure that all our kids are taken care of. To us, all means all.”

Stevenson said eight out of 10 teachers wore rainbow pins that Lanzrath made and distributed. The school board terminated his position during executive session on March 10. Stevenson believed the firing was retaliation.

“Can’t prove it,” Stevenson said. “Sure looked like it.”

Superintendent Robert Blair informed Dieker’s parents of their right to file a complaint under Title IX, and enlisted KASB to conduct an independent investigation. Sue Givens conducted the investigation, and Stallbaumer based her conclusions on interviews and other evidence Givens gathered.

After Stallbaumer’s report became final on May 6, the district hired an attorney to appeal her findings, and lost the appeal.

In a response to an open records act request by Kansas Reflector, Blair said the district has not yet received a bill indicating the cost of the failed appeal.

 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas on July 6 sent a letter to the North Lyon County school district demanding anti-discrimination training and transparency in the Title IX complaint process. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

A new chance

The discrimination by Wiltz and Gadino based on sexual orientation is not an isolated incident, said Liz Hamor, of Equality Kansas.

Of the 280 public school districts in Kansas, fewer than 10 have LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination policies, Hamor said.

“I think it happens probably weekly in schools all around Kansas, especially the rural areas where these biases are very pervasive and these words are very taboo,” Hamor said. “People just ignore it. People who experience it just want it to go away.”

Hamor heard from a student in another district recently who didn’t feel safe. The principal laughed it off, Hamor said, telling her, “There’s no homophobia in our school.”

In most cases, students or their parents are unwilling to endure public scrutiny. Parents worry what their friends, church members or co-workers might think.

“Izzy and her family were unique in that they are courageous and ready to speak out,” Hamor said.

If she hadn't spoken to the media, nothing would have been done about this and it would have all been brushed under the rug

– Sharon Brett, ACLU of Kansas legal director

Dieker began speaking to news outlets, including the Emporia Gazette, a couple of weeks after the confrontation on the bus.

“If she hadn’t spoken to the media, nothing would have been done about this and it would have all been brushed under the rug,” said Brett, the ACLU of Kansas legal director.

Brett said the district has a responsibility to make clear to families and students how the Title IX process works. In this case, Dieker and her parents weren’t sure what was going to happen or who was in charge of the investigation. Nobody communicated with the family when the investigation was complete.

The ACLU of Kansas demanded answers in a July 6 letter to Blair, the superintendent. On Friday, the ACLU announced the district had agreed to use an experienced anti-discrimination trainer to work with staff either this summer or during in-service days throughout the year. The district also agreed to make the Title IX complaint process more transparent.

The school district’s summer newsletter, mailed to residents of the district, outlines its anti-discrimination policy. No student or employee will be discriminated against or harassed on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, age or disability. The policy applies to all school programs and activities.

“I want to share how proud I am of the work our exemplary teachers and staff have accomplished in the past and will continue to accomplish in the coming school year,” Blair said in the newsletter. “Our staff is dedicated to the academic and personal success of the students we serve.”

Dieker is preparing to start at Northern Heights High School within the district in the coming school year.

“I’m nervous,” she said, “but it’s a new chance.”

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. A lifelong Kansan, he graduated from Emporia State University in 2004 as a Shepherd Scholar with a degree in English.

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