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Opinion My high school paper published a ‘pride’ issue. Then we got canceled.

Marcus Pennell, left, and Emma Smith — former Viking Saga newspaper staffers — outside Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb., July 20. (McKenna Lamoree/The Independent via AP)

Marcus Pennell is a college freshman and former student at Northwest High School in Grand Island, Neb.

The trouble started when I changed five letters in my first name.

My birth certificate reads “Meghan.” But my peers at Northwest High School in Nebraska knew me as “Marcus.” Changing my name wasn’t supposed to be a political statement. But our local school board has turned it into one.

As a student at Northwest, I wrote for our newspaper, Viking Saga. In late March, we were told by the board we would no longer be allowed to publish any name that wasn’t on our birth certificate or use gender-variant pronouns.

The Saga’s staff disagreed with the new policy. So with our next issue, we knew we wanted to make a statement. Whether the administration, parents or other students liked it or not, there were LGBTQ kids at Northwest, and taking away our liberty to be ourselves wasn’t going to change that.

For June, we published our “pride” issue. Its only LGBTQ content: three articles and, on the front page, two rainbow icons. Every other story in the paper was dedicated to honoring Northwest’s expansive student life. This included articles about newly offered classes, students in Future Business Leaders of America qualifying for a national contest and the trapshooting team’s successful season.

And then? The school board told us they were canceling our newspaper class starting the next academic year.

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Zach Mader, the board’s vice president, was quoted in the local newspaper, the Grand Island Independent, saying: “If [taxpayers] read that [issue], they would have been like, ‘Holy cow. What is going on at our school?’”

I’ll tell you what’s going on: discrimination against LGBTQ students. And now, thanks to national media attention, taxpayers all over the country are reading about it.

The cutting of Northwest’s journalism class was an “administrative” decision that couldn’t be debated, changed or questioned. There was no school board meeting, and no official gave us a real reason for the action.

Denying students, LGBTQ or otherwise, the opportunity to write and express themselves is outrageous. The News Media Alliance has found that students who wrote for their school newspaper or yearbook had higher grade point averages and ACT composite scores, and earned better grades as college freshmen than peers who did not participate in any form of high school media production.

The Saga had been publishing for 54 years. This year, we took third place at the Nebraska School Activities Association State Journalism Championship. None of these facts was enough to persuade administrators to continue supporting the newspaper. Instead, they showed that any perspective different from theirs would be silenced.

This is not only a violation of students’ right to education and free speech. It’s also harmful to students’ well-being. Policies that block our ability to write on LGBTQ topics or publish stories that humanize LGBTQ peers only serve to create a more hostile educational environment.

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GLSEN, an organization that advocates to improve educational environments for queer youth, reported in their 2019 National School Climate Survey that 59.1 percent of LGBTQ students felt unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation, 42.5 percent because of their gender expression and 37.4 percent because of their gender. The same study stated that 60.5 percent of LGBTQ students who reported harassment were either ignored by the adults at their school or told to disregard the harassment.

Being bullied by peers is one thing. But to be punished by the people who are supposed to be protecting your constitutional right to an education is despicable. Even the U.S. Education Department recognizes the importance of fostering an inclusive environment, declaring that “discrimination based on sex — including sexual orientation and gender identity — isn’t just wrong, it’s prohibited in America’s schools.”

I graduated in May. To the queer Northwest students coming behind me, I want to say: It gets better. I now study at a university where I face zero complications related to my gender identity. According to Campus Pride, at least 425 U.S. colleges and universities have gender-inclusive housing, nearly 800 allow students to use a “chosen first name” on course rosters and ID cards, and nearly 2,000 have policies protecting LGBTQ students. There are places in this country where you can be yourself and be safe — even if it’s not in the halls of your high school.

And to students who would have taken journalism at Northwest this year: Keep writing. Even if the adults in the room try to stop you. Even if you think nobody will ever read it or care about it. Expressing yourself through writing is a vital way to expose people to ideas and conversations they never would have considered before.

When our journalism program was cut, I was crushed. But I haven’t given up. And you shouldn’t either.

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