State Rep. Greg Heartsill’s inquiries about a recent youth conference could be called “how public funds are being spent” or a “witch hunt” — depending on who you ask. Heartsill sent out a letter to hundreds of K-12 Iowa educators May 21, asking for event details and participation data in the 10th annual Governor’s LBGTQ Youth Conference, held April 3 at the Prairie Meadows meeting facilities in Altoona.
However, the leadership of Iowa Safe Schools, which puts on the event, says Heartsill and another critic of the content of the conference, activist Bob Vander Plaats, are waging a mean-spirited attack on an increasingly vocal portion of Iowa youth. Recent statements made by both Heartsill (R-Columbia), whose Iowa legislature district includes part of Jasper County, and Iowa Safe Schools leaders show a deep divide, which centers on topics and presentations that took place at the conference.
“My biggest concern is that school kids — minors — were allegedly subjected to presentations that were sexually explicit, obscene, and laced with profanity. The conference had very little to do with anti-bullying or the promotion of tolerance and understanding. In fact, the closing speaker — whose presentation was reportedly littered with F- and S-bombs in almost every sentence — encouraged the attendees to vandalize the property of those who disagree with the LGBTQ lifestyle.”
Heartsill said two House Democrat colleagues encouraged him to meet with Nate Monson, the executive director of Iowa Safe Schools. However, he said Monson was “not very cooperative in being forthcoming with information” and was “unresponsive” and “outright dishonest.”
That’s when Heartsill decided to pen an official letter, containing several questions aimed a public school officials, which he emailed to many superintendents, including some in Jasper County. He asked which schools sent students to the event, held on Good Friday, and had several questions related to how taxpayer resources were utilized for such a trip. Lynnville-Sully and Baxter didn’t send any students to the conference.
Newton High School didn’t send an official contingent, but NHS teacher Andrea Hogeland and four members of the Newton High School Gay-Straight Alliance did attend the workshops, meeting the students at Prairie Meadows after they’d arranged for their own transportation.
Courtney Tabor, president of NHS’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said there was profanity in the closing presentation, but “nothing we weren’t hear at a high school on any day.” She said the presentation was focused on bullying, and not allowing others to define a student.
Tabor said there were workshops at the event focused on sexuality or high school issues, but the conference is clearly geared toward an anti-buyllying message. She said some of the workshops were very helpful to the four Newton students who attended.
“There was a lot of great guidance in how to run a GSA (gay-straight alliance) at the local level,” Tabor said.
Hogeland said she didn’t stay for the closing presentation, but she described the three sessions she attended as upbeat and empowering for young people.
“It was all done very professionally, and I didn’t hear any profanity in the sessions I attended,” Hogeland said. “It was very well done, and I would go again.”
Hogeland said the presentations made by former Iceland prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, WWE wrestler Darren Young and from a Methodist minister were all very moving.
“I was almost crying at one point,” Hogeland said.
Heartsill says his concern rests with how much graphic content went on at the conference. He said he heard back from about two-thirds of the superintendents he contacted.
“About 10 school districts reported paying for students and staff to attend the conference; either their registration fees, transportation, or both,” Heartsill said. “Most of the replies provide the information that was requested without commentary. One superintendent that had students attend, said that none of his students/staff found anything objectionable at the conference, and was speculating that the allegations may have been overblown. Another superintendent, who had students attend, told me that students at one of the breakout sessions reported they were very uncomfortable with the sexually explicit nature of the presentation — one student even described it as ‘pornographic’ — and there was enough concern to warrant a teacher leaving a different breakout session to observe the session in question.”
That teacher then ended up gathering all the students from that district and they left the conference early, Heartsill said. Heartsill said a handful of superintendents that did not have students at the conference expressed their support of the legislature looking into further into the matter.
Monson, when presented with Heartsill’s comments, reiterated some of the same sentiments he has already posted on blogs and on the Iowa Safe Schools website.
“Rep. Heartsill’s red herring of attacking this Conference and the youth who attend is just plain disturbing at best. Iowa Safe Schools does not receive taxpayer funds for this event (there are some cooperate and education-agency sponsors), and Heartsill’s gross overreach is, frankly, just offensive. He needs to stop creating stigma against a group of students and pass legislation that is meaningful to Iowans, including (anti-bullying legislation). Heartsill has not provided an actual witness to his claims, and he was not even at the conference. Sadly, shortly after Representative Heartsill’s inquiries began, a bisexual student completed suicide in a local school. Words matter.”
State Sen. Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton), who also represents part of Jasper County and serves as a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Education, said she is always interested in how public funds are being spent — especially when the legislature is deadlocked over school funding.
“The concern is heightened in times of tight budgets,” Sinclair said. “I’m uncertain why anyone would be offended by his legal request for information. I had a public school administrator contact me earlier in session to question whether the state was helping to fund such an event, given that we were having difficulty reaching an agreement on basic education funding. Public funds should not be used to advance social agendas.”
Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, said no official footage of the entire conference is made, as there are several sessions taking place simultaneously. However, he isn’t certain video or audio would make much difference in the deep divides about LGBTQ youth or about anti-bullying policy.
“For Rep. Heartsill and Mr. Vander Plaats, this isn’t about the content of any one presentation,” Sinovic said. “This is part of a years-long effort to delegitimize the Governor’s conference because they don’t believe LGBTQ students deserve to have the resources they need to prevent bullying in schools.”