Missouri Senate leader’s tweet about drag performance helped kickstart controversy
Public records show no messages from constituents to Sen. Caleb Rowden before his tweet, though the Columbia Republican says he received calls to his office and messages to his campaign accounts that are not available under the Sunshine Law
Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, speaks to the Missouri Senate (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).
With a single tweet, Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden turned a local controversy over what Columbia Public Schools told parents about the drag entertainment at a city diversity breakfast into a state issue.
At 8:44 p.m. on Jan. 19, Rowden wrote that his “office has been inundated with calls & emails re: grade school kids being forced to sit through a drag show” at the annual Columbia Values Diversity breakfast that morning.
But in response to a Sunshine Law request filed by The Independent, Rowden’s office produced no emails received earlier than 9:04 a.m. Jan. 20 — more than 12 hours after his tweet. And that first email voiced support for having children experience the drag performance by Nclusion Plus.
“I have attended this event in the past. I’m sorry I missed this year’s exciting entertainment,” wrote Rebecca Shaw, who identified herself as a parent with two children in Columbia schools who did not attend.
In an interview, Rowden said the records produced in response to the Sunshine Law request do not reflect calls and messages he received through non-public channels prior to his Jan. 19 tweet.
There were calls to his personal phone, messages on campaign-related social media, emails to his campaign account and calls to his office that were answered directly by staff. Rowden said he does not believe those records are covered by the Sunshine Law’s requirements for disclosure.
My office has been inundated with calls & emails re: grade school kids being forced to sit through a drag show at this morning’s #CoMO Diversity Breakfast. We have heard from parents whose kids attended who are obviously very upset. 1/3 #MOLeg https://t.co/DQT72a8Z0I
— Caleb Rowden (@calebrowden) January 20, 2023
Between 10 a.m., when he received the first call about the breakfast, and when he sent his tweet, Rowden said he received approximately 20 messages, including “six to 10” calls to his Capitol office.
“All were either upset about the event or more informative to make sure we knew about it,” Rowden said, later adding: “We got a lot of people who were up in arms. I wanted them to know I was aware of it and taking it seriously.”
Among the records obtained by The Independent are 23 emails from constituents in Boone County, which Rowden represents in the Senate.
Two that were critical of the district were from teachers, one retired and one working. The teacher currently working for the district did not attend the diversity breakfast but said she was told about it by students who did.
She was “completely upset and appalled” at what she heard, she wrote.
“I hope you represent angry parents and teachers (both taxpayers) and sue CPS,” the teacher wrote. “I’m so sick of how liberal CPS has become.”
The 21 other emails were almost evenly split between those upset about the performance and those upset with Rowden’s criticism. Among those 21 emails, nine were from parents who said they had children attending Columbia Public Schools.
Two were from parents who had children who actually attended the breakfast and offered mixed opinions. So did the two from people who gave addresses outside the Columbia district. The four recorded voice messages were from people who thought the performance was not appropriate for school children.
The Columbia Values Diversity breakfast is a city-government sponsored event timed to be held near the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Children from several schools, private and public, attended, including a group of 30 Columbia public schools middle school students and a handful of students from other schools by invitation.
To attend, parents had to sign a permission slip that indicated their child could expect “songs and performances” as part of the celebration of diversity without stating specifically what performance would occur.
Videos of the performance show nothing overtly sexual in the four songs in the show. The performers did circulate through the audience and accept tips.
Of the parents of a child who attended, Tara Arnett told Rowden her son is severely autistic. She emailed Rowden to discuss both the breakfast and her other bad experiences with the school district.
In an interview on Friday, Arnett said she would not have consented to having her son attend if she had known the drag performance would occur. Her son was invited by his principal to represent the diversity at his middle school, Arnett said, but the limited space meant she could not attend.
To accommodate his severe autism, she worked through several potential issues, including arranging to have him and his principal seated at a table at the edge of the event, in case it became too much for him.
No one mentioned that there would be a drag performance, she said.
“I don’t believe children should be taken to a drag performance without it being OK’d by parents,” Arnett said. “I am not saying the city should not put on a drag performance.”
The other parent who wrote about her child attending, Molly Lyman, said her son thought the performance was “cool” but didn’t understand what a drag performance was.
“To him…they were just three performers who were really fun to watch!” Lyman wrote.
It was the first thing he told them about when he got home that day, she wrote.
“Parents getting so upset about this blows my mind,” Lyman wrote.
In an email to The Independent, Lyman said she wrote to Rowden in response to news reports about his critical tweet.
“I knew they were being inundated with emails condemning CPS and the Diversity Breakfast,” Lyman told The Independent, “and I knew some of the loudest and angriest people didn’t even have students there.”
A parent whose child did not attend the performance, Marisa Hagler, emailed Rowden accusing the district of deliberately withholding the fact that a drag show was planned from parents.
In an interview with The Independent on Friday, Hagler reiterated her accusation.
“Everybody, unless you have been living under a rock, knows how controversial drag shows have become and taking kids to them,” Hagler said.
Shaw, the first person to email Rowden’s office after his tweet, said she decided to write to her state senator after seeing news stories about his criticism of the event. She wanted him to know that the opposition was not universal, she said.
“There was a lot of push for people to be outraged about this,” Shaw said.
Among those outraged were Gov. Mike Parson, who wrote on his Twitter account that Columbia school children “were subjected to adult performers” at the breakfast. “
This is unacceptable,” Parson wrote.
A Missouri House committee held a hearing on legislation last week that would define drag performances as adult entertainment and bar attendance by anyone under 18.
And Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who sent letters to Columbia city officials and Yearwood accusing them of violating laws protecting children from sexually explicit material, followed that up with a call for school officials who knew a drag performance would occur to resign or be fired.
Bailey wrote that the “adult themed drag show endangered children, represented an indoctrination program that runs counter to the educational mission of our schools, and deprived parents of an ability to knowingly consent to their children’s attendance at this event.”
Rowden has not joined the calls for resignations. He met Thursday afternoon with District Superintendent Brian Yearwood and Board of Education President David Seamon.
“I think we are moving in a good direction,” Rowden said. “It is not my desire or my goal to make more out of this than it needs to be. It is about parents who feel they are not being communicated with.”
Seamon and Yearwood did not make any specific commitments to Rowden, district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.
“Respectful open dialogue and discourse at all levels is a good thing for everyone,” she said.
In a letter to Parson, Yearwood said the district was reviewing its processes so it could “effectively share the advance information we do have with our students and families” about outside events with district participation.
Prior to Rowden’s tweet, Baumstark said, the district heard from two parents who were upset with the performance their child attended and another parent who objected but did not have a child attend. After, she said, the district received numerous complaints, many from outside the district and some from outside Missouri.
Rowden said he would not, for now, talk about the specifics of the discussion.
“There are action steps I asked them to take,” Rowden said. “I don’t want to give details until I see if they do it or not.”
It is the lack of detail in the communication with parents before the breakfast, and how the district addressed criticism afterward, that he wants to fix.
“People misunderstood what the issue was,” Rowden said. “This has very little to do with drag, to me.”
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