Two Ohio House bills threaten Cleveland’s only LGBTQ+ public school

At 15, Leon Reimschisel isn’t the same person they were just three years ago.

When Leon started eighth grade at Solon Middle School in August 2019, they had difficulty settling into their new life. They had just moved to the Cleveland area from Nashville, Tennessee, after their father got a job at a local university.

<span class="content-image-text">Students at the School of One at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland</span>Students at the School of One at the LGBT Community Center of Greater ClevelandBut seven months into the academic year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced kids to leave their schools and learn from home remotely.

Leon, who had already struggled with making friends, didn’t do well with the isolation. But the time spent at home was nothing, if not reflective. While navigating newfound anxiety and depression, Leon started homing in on the kind of person they wanted to be.

In ninth grade, Leon came out to their schoolmates as bisexual.

In 10th grade, Leon cut their hair and changed their name.

And that’s when everything got worse: Peers started misgendering them, intentionally putting Leon’s feet to the fire.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” one student asked, before laughing.

“I liked you better when you wore leggings and had longer hair,” said another.

“The kids had already decided they weren’t going to be Leon’s friend,” says Terisa, Leon’s mother. “They just kind of wrote them off.”

As Leon’s depression grew, they began missing days at school, opting to stay home instead where they were accepted and safe.

“When I was trying to be myself, people were being really mean,” says Leon. “I needed a different environment.” 

At the start of 10th grade, Leon enrolled at School of One: Solutions for Global Issues, a Cleveland public school housed at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. 

“It saved my life, in a way, and it saved my school career,” recalls Leon. 

At School of One, students explore real issues in their communities utilizing the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, and have a chance to develop personalized learning environments designed to help them succeed long after they graduate.

The first school of its kind in the country located within an LGBTQ+ center, the school is one of nine site-specific “School of One” schools in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which includes locations at John Adams High School, James Ford Rhodes High School, and Bard High School Early College. Each is designed to provide an differentiated, individualized, online educational experience. 

But the LGBT Center school’s future could be in jeopardy because of two bills making their way through the Ohio legislature—Ohio House Bill 616 and Ohio House Bill 454.

If passed the bills would limit both LGBTQ+ education in schools and access to healthcare for LGBTQ+ students.

Creating a new LGBTQ+-supportive school
The School of One launched at the LGBT Center in fall 2020. “We wanted to be in a space that is safe, affirming and welcoming for all youth, especially LGBTQ youth,” says Gulnar Feerasta, the center’s director of programs.

The plan was to enroll 30 students that first year. But the COVID-19 pandemic made open enrollment difficult. Just one student joined remotely in that first semester, followed by 12 others who joined in the spring of 2021. During its first year, the school followed a hybrid learning model where kids could log in remotely or come into the center for online programming and one-on-one instruction. 

<span class="content-image-text">Gulnar Feerasta, LGBT Center director of Programs (left) and DaJon Battle, CMSD program administrator</span>Gulnar Feerasta, LGBT Center director of Programs (left) and DaJon Battle, CMSD program administratorNow, the School of One has 27 students—including Leon—who come into the center for classes during morning and afternoon sessions Monday through Friday.

Led by CMSD teachers who offer one-on-one mentoring, School of One students design their own curriculums that they follow at their own pace. Honors classes are offered alongside Facing History, an interdisciplinary course that teaches fully inclusive history as it relates to equity, inclusion, race and identity. Because the school is housed inside the LGBT Center, students have full access to the center’s after-school programs, mental health services, and community resources.

“Our organization is very much focused on social justice, equity and human rights advocacy and providing wraparound services to LGBTQ youth,” says Feerasta.

That’s a good thing when you consider that 5,300 students in Cuyahoga County identify as LGBTQ+, according to the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods. Of those students, 40% of them had reported seriously considering suicide, according to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

“With the School of One, there is some intentionality around providing wraparound supports,” says Feerasta.

At its core, the school offers a respite to LGBTQ students who struggle with their education in environments where they’re faced with bullying and discrimination. It’s the exact kind of space currently under threat from recently introduced legislation that aims to greatly impact students’ access to gender-affirming healthcare and instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Proposed Legislation Threatens School of One
The Republican-sponsored Ohio House Bill 454—dubbed the Save Adolescents from Experimentation (SAFE) Act—would prohibit students under the age of 18 from obtaining hormone treatments, puberty blockers, and gender-affirming surgery even with parental consent.

It also would prohibit medical professionals from making referrals to any medical doctor for gender transition procedures. Additionally, it forces school staff to effectively out students to their parents should they discover the student’s perception of their gender is inconsistent with their biological sex.

<span class="content-image-text">Students at the School of One at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland</span>Students at the School of One at the LGBT Community Center of Greater ClevelandOhio House Bill 616—the state’s own version of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill that passed in March—goes one step further by banning school districts from selecting “any textbook, instructional material, or academic curriculum that promotes any divisive or inherently racist concepts” including critical race theory, intersectional theory and any other concept that the state board of education defines as divisive or inherently racist.

Embedded within that legislation are LGBTQ-specific bans that instruct the following:

  • “With respect to a student in any of grades kindergarten through 3, schools may not teach, use, or provide any curriculum or instructional materials on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
  • “With respect to a student in any of grades four through 12, schools may not teach, use, or provide any curriculum or instructional materials on sexual orientation or gender identity in any manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
HB 454 has already had four hearings in the Ohio State House, while HB 616 had its first hearing May 31. And while neither bill has made it to the Ohio Senate and therefore hasn’t been signed into law, school districts across Ohio are already experiencing ramifications of both bills.

“We’re already seeing school districts and officials see these introduction of bills as permission to enforce everything,” says Maria Bruno, public policy director for Equality Ohio. “We saw a teacher who got fired in Chillicothe for explaining the meaning behind Pride bracelets at the students’ request. The Buckeye Valley Local School District banned a children’s book called “It’s Okay To Be A Unicorn” by Jason Tharp because a parent complained it was recruiting people to be LGBTQ.”

So, what would these bills mean for the School of One? Would they force the school to leave the LGBT Center entirely because of its close proximity and access to informative pamphlets and support groups related to sexual orientation and gender identity? Would they halt the medical and mental health services available to students through partnerships with MetroHealth (and its onsite Pride Clinic), University Hospitals, and the May Dugan Center?

“It’s really hard to overstate the potential dramatic impact of a bill like HB 616 because the language is intentionally open-ended and contains catch-all provisions that have a lot of wiggle room for the very politicized state board to decide on a whim what they would like or not like to include,” says Bruno.

Because the LGBT Center’s School of One is funded from CMSD’s general fund, critical resources that are available to students on-site could potentially be affected, including connecting to LGBTQ+ affirming and gender-affirming healthcare on and off site.

Loved, accepted, celebrated
For Leon, the most important opportunity thus far at the School of One is being able to connect with other students like them who have gender differences and identify as LGBTQ+.

After school, Leon stays at the Center three days a week to join their friends in the Queer Youth Initiative (QYou), a youth-driven community support program for ages 11-20. On the second floor of the LGBT Center, Leon plays games, shares their experiences and explores what it means to be a part of an affirming and welcoming community.

“Leon is a very engaging person and they’re kind of realizing that about themselves now, that they can be loved, accepted and celebrated for who they are,” says Terisa.

Just six months into their first semester at the School of One, Leon had graduated from the Center’s #PowerUpPowerOut program, a 13-week leadership course in which students learn how to become better advocates and positively impact their communities. As a result, Leon is now a youth ambassador tasked with helping out with the Center’s youth prom committee—a far cry from the shy, troubled teenager who used to avoid school entirely.

“I like having other queer people around who understand gender dysphoria, who understand my struggles with pronouns and being able to talk to them about it,” says Leon. “If you’re struggling with mental illness and you’re queer, this is an accepting place where you’re not going to get bullied and you’re not going to be shunned.”

And while the QYou and #PowerUpPowerOut programs themselves don’t run the risk of being shut down because of their status as Center-exclusive programming, having the School of One located on site where these services are offered and where students can share their lived experiences makes the School of One a direct target for HB 616 and HB 454.

If it becomes law, HB 616 would prohibit discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to third grade and censor such discussions through 12th grade. It also would ban discussion of race and racial inequity and any training related to diversity, equity and inclusion — the very basis on which the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland and its School of One were founded.

“We’ve got queer Black kids, queer Brown kids and queer white kids here,” says Feerasta. “If they’re talking about their different experiences and the racism they might experience or the homophobia and transphobia they might encounter in other spaces, we’re telling a whole segment of the school-age population that they have no right to talk about or ask questions about or engage in any meaningful dialogue about who they are and what it means to exist in this society.”

And it means curriculum like Facing History, which touches on critical race theory and ways to improve inequality, would be banned as well, not just at School of One, but throughout the entirety of every school district in the state of Ohio.

“We want to help these youth be thoughtful and intentional about how they engage with the world and how they show up in the world,” says Feerasta. “We want to be thinking about social issues and issues of social justice, inequity and intersectionality, and help young people sort of contextualize themselves within the broader socio-political landscape.”

How to stay vigilant in the months ahead
For now, it’s too soon to tell exactly how much HB 616 and HB 454 will directly impact the School of One, or whether either will be signed into law. The Ohio Legislature is currently in summer session and scheduled to return in September. Until then, Bruno strongly advises contacting your local representatives on the dire impact these bills could have.

“The No. 1 thing people can do would be to vote in the upcoming election in November, make sure your communities are voting and make sure you’re educating the people around you on these harmful bills and the candidates that support these bills,” says Bruno. “We recommend folks meet with their lawmakers and continue to contact the committee members.”

Ohio State Senator Nickie Antonio seconds that call to action and is patiently waiting to see if either bill moves into the Senate this fall.

“The difference between this legislation and some of the other things we do is that this legislation is not based on any kind of evidence-based information,” says Antonio. “More than anything, these bills are contributing to ongoing, hateful, discriminatory attitudes and they’re fueling the fires of bigotry. The question we have to ask ourselves has to be, ‘Do the people in the Ohio Legislature really represent the voice of the majority of the people in the state of Ohio?’”

For now, as the school year comes to a close, the Reimschisels are bounding ahead at full speed, reflecting on the six months they’ve had as part of the School of One. Leon looks forward to a summer spent with the friends they’ve made at the Center and the success they’ve experienced at putting on their first prom.

“This place has given me the space to make a lot of friends,” says Leon.

And Leon’s mother recognizes the impact the School of One has had on her child: they no longer shy away from their studies, but rather, they look forward to the next time they’re able to return to the classroom.

“Leon came in so small and withdrawn,” says Terisa. “Now, they’ve flowered.”

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEO SoJo is composed of 16-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including FreshWater Cleveland.

James Bigley II is an award-winning writer and editor from Cleveland. His work has appeared in Wired, EGM and Cleveland Magazine.