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Columbia Values Diversity Celebration facing backlash over performers in drag; attorney general warns CPS; CPS issues statement

COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)

An annual event hosted by the City of Columbia since 1994 is facing backlash for hosting an LGBTQIA+ group featuring three drag queens.

Nclusion Plus performed at the end of the Columbia Values Diversity celebration following keynote speaker Renee Montgomery. The event is a yearly celebration of diversity that's pegged on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which took place last week.

Columbia Public Schools invited students to attend the event, according to parents posting on social media sites such as Facebook. Parents were required to fill out a permission slip. Copies of the slip have been posted to social media.

ABC 17 News is working to get a copy of the slip.

Columbia Mayor Barbara Buffaloe attended the event and took to Twitter to post pictures with the performers.

"We want to thank the planning committee of Thursday's Columbia Values Diversity celebration," Buffaloe said. "We appreciate the thoughtfulness that was put into organizing an event that recognizes and elevated the diversity of our community."

Buffaloe said the event ended with an "upbeat and energetic performance" from Nclusion plus.

"Drag is a cross-cultural art form with a long & rich history that is fun and encourages self-expression," said Buffaloe. "As hate crimes against drag show locations and performers are being committed in other communities we want to reaffirm that Columbia is a community that supports all."

Columbia Public Schools did not immediately respond to a request for more information about the event.

Republican State Sen. Caleb Rowden said his office has been "inundated with calls and emails."

Rowden said he has asked for a meeting with the CPS superintendent and members of the Columbia Board of Education. Rowden said he wants to hear the process that led to this event, and to "gather information to determine what next steps need to be taken at the legislative level."

"I will use all the resources at my disposal to stand up for kids and their parents, especially in instances where they don't feel like their voice is being heard," Rowden said.

Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Andrew Bailey, both Republicans, also gave their opinions on the incident in statements.

"We are deeply concerned about reports that Columbia middle school students were subjected to adult performers during what is historically a MLK Day celebration. This is unacceptable," Parson wrote.

"To characterize a three song, 830am drag set as 'adult performers' is incredibly dangerous. You know what you’re doing here and that, my guy, is what’s unacceptable," Columbia City Councilwoman Andrea Waner wrote in a now-deleted tweet responding to Parson.

Bailey said in a news release that he wrote a letter to the school superintendent saying taking children to the performance might have run afoul of state law that bans providing sexual materials to children.

Drag performances have become a divisive issue, with Republicans and conservatives criticizing events featuring drag performers that cater to children. The issue is part of a broader culture war that includes battles over other LGBTQ issues, including how transgender student-athletes compete.

An Arkansas Senate committee on Thursday approved a bill that would restrict drag performances.

Tara Arnett is one of those parents who were not aware of the performance. 

"Mistakes happen. We learn from them, we grow from them," Arnett said. "But we can't learn and grow from them if we don't acknowledge that they even happened or take responsibility for them happening." 

Arnett's nonverbal autistic son is an eighth grader. Arnett said special planning was done so her son could attend. She did not receive a permission slip, but said she was in constant contact with the school to make the necessary arrangements for her son. 

"I started getting wind from other parents through the morning from their students who attended as to what happened and what was there," Arnett said. "I was not pleased to find this out just because I didn't have any control over it. It was not something that we consented to as parents." 

Arnett said her son expresses himself typically through reenacting things he sees on television. She said she tries to monitor what he views. 

We Project Director Valerie Berta attended Thursday’s event. She thought the event was family friendly. The nonprofit aims to amplify marginalized communities through storytelling. 

Berta thinks the backlash the event has received is alarming. 

"As Mayor Barbara Buffalo said, it's a really important thing to do, to emphasize the fact that here in Columbia and in Missouri, we value diversity, we value being inclusive of all our humanity," Berta said. "Especially I think, in the face of attacks, sometimes really violent, physical and so there is real danger involved in spreading those narratives. That is really, to me, profoundly disturbing." 

CPS issues statement

Columbia Public Schools spokesperson Michelle Baumstark emailed a statement to ABC 17 News. The statement can be read -- in full -- below:

"Thank you for reaching out.  We truly appreciate the opportunity and the offer to give us a voice.  I hope you are also contacting the private and parochial schools that also had students at the event.  I do want to share with you some specifics that have been shared with others as well as some additional context.  

The City of Columbia held its 30th annual Columbia Values Diversity Breakfast Thursday morning.  The event is put on and organized by the City of Columbia.  Individuals from Columbia Public Schools were among the more than 1,000+ attendees at the community event.  Attendees are not provided specific details of the performances in advance of the event.  This is a wonderful event put on the to celebrate the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and individuals from the district have attended every year since its inception. The district is also honored to be a part of coordinating and participating in the student writings portion of the celebration event, which we have done for many years.

The event included singing of our National Anthem, an invocation by Columbia faith leaders, a presentation of student writing centered around diversity themes, a discussion of Columbia’s journey toward inclusive excellence by the city’s Mayor Barbara Buffaloe, and the presentation of awards. Former WNBA super star Renee Montgomery was the keynote speaker, and her speech was sponsored by University of Missouri Athletics. The last portion was a 15 minute dance and singing performance by “NClusion +.”

There were approximately 30 Columbia Public Schools students in attendance at the event. There were also students from our community’s private and parochial schools in attendance.  Of the CPS students in attendance, the district has received 2 complaints from parents of children who attended the event.  We have been in direct communication with those parents regarding their concerns. 

The district has also received numerous communications from parents who did NOT have students at the event, individuals who do NOT have children enrolled in CPS, and individuals who do NOT reside in our community.  

We remain focused on the intent of the City of Columbia’s celebration, which for 30 years has been to celebrate our diversity and honor those in our community whose work exemplifies the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in fostering individual dignity, racial equality, understanding, peacemaking, and problem-solving through non-violence.

Thank you,"

Check back for updates to this developing story.

Article Topic Follows: News
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Marina Diaz

Marina is a Multimedia Journalist for ABC 17 News, she is originally from Denver, Colorado. She went to Missouri Valley College where she played lacrosse and basketball, and anchored her school’s newscast.

Joushua Blount

Joushua Blount hails from Cleveland, Ohio and has a bachelor’s degree in media communications from the University of Toledo. He also has a master’s degree from the University Of Alabama. Roll Tide!

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