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‘Do you remember Mr. K (asking you to say) Yas Queen?’ – RANGE Media

Jacob Knight
In his first three years at Brentwood Elementary School in Mead, Jacob Knight, a well-known and widely-loved teacher, won accolades and praise for his work with fifth-graders, many of whom were troubled. After he came out as gay, a handful of parents started complaining about him. Within a year, he was no longer teaching at Brentwood. Photo by Erick Doxey, Photo Illustration by Val Osier.

Jacob Knight was known as one of the go-to teachers at Brentwood Elementary, especially for students who had experienced trauma or felt like they didn’t belong. Knight, who taught fifth grade, was so popular that parents specifically angled to get their children placed in his classroom.

Spencer Brower requested to have his 11-year-old daughter, Keleah, placed in Knight’s class. “As parents, we loved Mr. Knight,” Brower told RANGE. “He created an environment, for at least our daughter, that was safe and secure, but also held kids responsible and accountable for developing and learning on their own.”

Knight’s fellow teachers recommended him too. Brower knew to request Knight for Keleah because her fourth-grade teacher thought she would thrive under Knight’s instruction. 

Keleah, who spoke with RANGE over the phone with her dad present, said she struggles with anxiety and that she felt comfortable in Knight’s class because when she was stressed about something, he always found a way to take her mind off of it.

“One time there was going to be a fire drill,” Keleah said. “And he could tell I was getting very nervous, (so) he brought up some stickers, and me and my best friend just went and sorted them all out.” The task was a respite, and Keleah said she forgot the fire drill was scheduled at all.

Another parent, Kate Heidergott, had heard his name mentioned for years as her kid rose through the grade levels at Brentwood. “Nothing but really amazing things,” she told RANGE. “We were very excited when our child got him as a teacher.”

Often, the children placed in Knight’s class needed extra support. “Kids with anxiety, kids with severe trauma,” Knight told RANGE. And though that can be a lot for a veteran teacher, let alone a person early in his career — Knight is 25, and started teaching at 21 — it felt like a natural fit for him, he said. “I have a lot of background in that — that’s one of my skill sets.”

Brower remembers Knight doing small, meaningful things to break classroom monotony, like teaching math outside on nice days. Knight encouraged students to celebrate wins and get comfortable talking about hardship and disappointment by holding Monday conversations in which students were encouraged to share a “hi” and a “lo” from the previous week. 

Knight would share his own positive experiences as a way to model healthy relationships. Simple things like long walks or going sledding with his wife. Research shows when teachers connect with students on a personal level, within certain boundaries, it can improve learning.

Professional accolades accompanied the praise from parents and peers. Brentwood’s principal, Alicia Eckman, had stacked Knight’s most recent evaluation with “distinguished” marks. In just his second year of teaching, the young educator had received KHQ’s coveted “Teacher of the Month” award.

But in March of 2023, things changed dramatically.

That month, in the corner of his classroom where he displayed his personal keepsakes, Knight hung a Pride flag. He said he did so in a spirit of inclusivity, knowing some of his students at this age had begun feeling that they were different from their peers. “Every year I have two or three students that are out and know it,” Knight told RANGE.

He said he wanted those students — along with others who might still be unsure of their sexuality — to feel safe in his classroom. Knight said he knows firsthand what a lack of safety can do to a young student. He had experienced it himself as a child enrolled in the Mead School District (MSD). 

“I knew I was gay in first grade,” Knight told RANGE. “I said it out loud and students made fun of me, so I never said it again.” 

The lesson was simple, and Knight — always a good student — internalized it deeply: “I just learned you don’t say it out loud.”

After those experiences, Knight said he spent most of his life in the closet, and only came out publicly around the time he hung the Pride flag. 

His marriage to a woman had ended, and Knight began dating a man named Justin. He said he continued to share his personal life with his students the way he always had, but took care to open up to them gradually about his identity as a gay man. First, he talked about his new “partner,” leaving names and pronouns out. After about a month, during a Monday morning “hi and lo,” he showed them a photograph of his boyfriend bringing him a bouquet of flowers, in the same way as he had told stories about his former wife.

In addition to wanting to model an authentic life for his gay and questioning students, Knight said he wanted to live an authentic life. 

He knew that was risky.

Brentwood is in the Mead School District, which serves the relatively wealthy, conservative suburbs north of Spokane. School board races have become increasingly politicized there, and board meetings have become contentious — especially on topics of race, gender and sexuality. 

Knight recalled that Justin warned him things might get a lot harder for him once he was out of the closet, and Knight understood that at an interpersonal level, too. Knight told RANGE his family is very conservative, and throughout the process of planning to come out, he said he asked himself, “‘How would my family react?’ And that would help me anticipate how certain parents in my classroom might react.”

Despite all of that, Knight said he decided to trust those colleagues and parents who had put so much trust in him. 

Less than a year later, though, this accomplished young teacher would no longer be teaching at all. 

‘Taking control of our school board is of utmost importance’

As soon as Knight hung his Pride flag and began coming out to his students, things began to unravel. 

Quickly, a post about Knight’s flag appeared on social media in the form of an anonymous post to the private Facebook group Mead for Choice. “There is a gay male fifth grade teacher at Brentwood Elementary that has a large pride progressive flag hanging in his classroom,” it read, in part.

The post also claimed another queer teacher sometimes wore rainbow colors to school, and wondered why the district didn’t ban such displays.

“They have no shame with the blatant statements that they are making with what they wear and display. I don’t want my children exposed to this stuff,” the post read. “They are influencing our babies.” 

The poster turned their attention to the upcoming school board election that following November. “Stay in your lane Mead educators! Taking control of our school board is of utmost importance you guys!! if we don’t speak up, it is going to get so bad!”

If you’re a parent in Mead, you’ve probably heard about this post. Brower, who is not a member of Mead for Choice group — first mentioned it to RANGE.

Brower is Mormon, and said he was concerned when he realized the sentiments in the post had carried into that community as well. “Even some within (the Latter-Day Saints) community said, ‘We’ve got to protect our children,’” Brower told RANGE. “I’m like, ‘What are we protecting them from? The dude’s a good teacher. I don’t understand what we’re trying to protect now.’”

Knight said Principal Alicia Eckman called him into her office twice in March 2023 to encourage him to “be careful” in sharing details about his new partner. The second time she called him into the classroom, she showed him a screenshot of the Mead for Choice Facebook post, Knight said. 

RANGE asked district leadership to respond to a detailed list of allegations reported in this story, which is based on interviews with Knight, Heidergott, Spencer and Keleah Brower, emails sent by MSD officials and text messages RANGE obtained from Knight. Spokesperson Todd Zeidler wrote back, pushing back on some details and characterizations. Those responses are described in this account, but Zeidler did not dispute that Eckman had discouraged Knight from sharing in his classroom about his personal life after he came out. 

In addition to the Facebook post, at least one concerned parent reached out to Knight directly. On June 16, 2023, just before Brentwood let out for summer break, Knight received an email from Jeff Stevenson, a parent of a student in his class asking him to use “temperance” when sharing about his personal life. In an interview with RANGE, Stevenson said his concern was not with Knight’s sexuality but with his sharing about his personal life in the classroom. Asked whether he would have written a similar email had he known Knight had shared about dates with his wife, Stevenson declined to comment. 

In a long email exchange following the interview, Stevenson demanded to see a copy of this story before it was published and copied the Kentucky defamation attorney, Todd McMurtry, who has represented far-right figures like Nick Sandmann and Kyle Rittenhouse. (RANGE did not share the story before publication.) 

Michael Cannon, the chair of the MSD Board of Directors, sent text messages on September 1, 2023 to a parent who had a student in Knight’s classroom that show Cannon was aware of the controversy over Knight’s Pride flag.

“Apparently (Knight) came out last year,” Cannon wrote in the text, which RANGE obtained from Knight and verified with the parent, who requested anonymity for fear of negative repercussions for their child, who still attends Brentwood. “And felt he had to talk about it and explain it to the students in his class. Which was dealt with. But he has a pride flag in his room now … and parents don’t like it.”

Cannon provided a statement about that text to RANGE through Zeidler, saying, in part, “This was a personal message … the point which was to clarify the situation. There was concern regarding Mr. Knight. Rumors were starting to circulate that because of my perceived political stance, I was driving or influencing what was happening around Mr. Knight. I was clarifying that was not at all the case. I was not remotely involved, although my name was being included to make this seem politically-motivated because of a connection I had to this particular class — out of hundreds of classes in our district. Not true.”

Knight had decided to come out in a national and local context in which school districts — and especially elementary schools — have become battlegrounds increasingly hostile to the social acceptance of queer communities. This year, the ACLU is tracking more than 500 bills in state legislatures that would roll back rights for queer people, many of them relating to queerness in public schools.

Most of those bills are being considered in red states, but the trend is present here in the Inland Northwest. 

Mead is one such district and Brentwood is one such school. 

In the summer of 2022, Cannon — presiding over a board split between conservatives and liberals  — suggested policy changes using language pulled from national organizations including the former Trump administration in an attempt to ban gender-inclusive books from elementary libraries and to ban “‘Critical Race Theory’ curricula or ideology” from civics education. 

Those policy changes failed, but last November’s school board elections ushered in a decisively  conservative majority, and by February, the board passed a resolution opposing a state proposal to require queer representation in school textbooks. The Deer Park and Central Valley school districts passed similar resolutions the same month.

At a school board meeting that month, RANGE asked Cannon to comment on the resolution, but he declined.

A new school year & an investigation

After the start of the 2023-’24 school year as the November election approached, Toby Doolittle, president of the teachers union Mead Education Association (MEA), asked him to take down his Pride flag, fearing it might become a political flashpoint. Knight initially refused, but after Doolittle asked a second time, he reluctantly obeyed, removing the rest of his personal decorations as well. 

Doolittle did not respond to a request for comment.

Knight told RANGE that students noticed the following morning. “A student goes, ‘Oh my gosh, Mr. Knight, where is all your stuff?’” he recalled, “I said, ‘I would rather have all of me on the walls or none of me on the walls, and right now, I don’t feel safe having all of me on the walls, so I’m not having any.’”

On December 18, 2023, Eckman announced an investigation into Knight’s classroom based on “concerns” that she did not elaborate upon at the time. In an email to the parents of Knight’s students, she told them their children — most of whom were 10 or 11 years old — would be pulled from class the following day, the final school day before winter break, to be interviewed. 

“I am reaching out to inform you that some students in your child’s classroom have expressed concerns about certain statements made by the teacher,” Eckman wrote in the email. “We are conducting a thorough investigation into these claims, and as part of this process, we may need to interview your child.”

Parent Spencer Brower was perplexed by the email. “It was very vague,” he said. “I didn’t quite understand why we were having to do this interview.”

In her email, Eckman wrote that some of the district’s top leadership, including Director of Student and Family Engagement Services Josh Westermann and Director of Human Resources Keri Hutchins, would conduct the interviews. Eckman also told parents they could call the school to schedule a time if they wanted to attend their child’s interview, though with the short notice, she acknowledged “this may be difficult for some and we apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.” The email also stated Eckman would not be at the school that day, but Heather Havens, the assistant superintendent of the district, would fill in for her, and concerned parents should contact Havens.

The email did not offer specific allegations and didn’t explain the urgency of the investigation or even the nature of the comments Knight was alleged to have made. 

Brower’s daughter Keleah was one of the students interviewed as part of the investigation. In a phone interview with RANGE for which her dad was present, Keleah said the first two questions related to Knight removing his pride flag: “‘What happened the day that he took down his pride flag?’ And, ‘Did they have a discussion about it?’”

Other questions Keleah recited to RANGE, though, were unrelated to the flag controversy: “Has he shown me any life photos and experiences with the class?” Keleah remembered being asked. “Does he show you photos of pink overalls? Does he have nicknames for kids? And does he have favorites?” Keleah also said the district asked her whether Knight treated boys differently than girls. Additionally, Zeidler said in an email to RANGE that the district asked, “Do you remember Mr. K instructing the class to call him or respond to him with ‘Yas Queen’?”

She said the school gave her the option to abstain from the interview, but she chose to participate because she knew the investigation was based on a falsehood. “I was just annoyed that they had asked me those questions,” Keleah said, “because I knew it wasn’t true that he was doing all that stuff.”

MSD Superintendent Travis Hanson followed up with parents by email on December 29, during the winter break. In his message, Hanson told parents the investigation had been rushed to put the issue to bed as quickly as possible. “Providing a positive and safe learning environment is always our primary aim, and the concerns brought to our attention necessitated that we act quickly to ask the children in the class a few questions,” Hanson wrote.

Hanson did not explain the gap of more than a month between Knight’s removing his flag and the announcement of the investigation, though he did concede the district’s timing was “far from ideal.” And while Hanson’s email provides some clarity about the nature of the investigation, details were still scant. 

“Of primary concern were reports from students who felt uncomfortable being told that they were not to share things discussed in the classroom with their parents,” Hanson wrote. “As can occur in any classroom, it appears that the students’ concerns resulted from some level of misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the teacher’s comments.” (Italics Hanson’s.)

The primary purpose of Hanson’s email was to let parents know the investigation found Knight had not encouraged the students to hide anything from their parents.

“Most students reported that Mr. Knight frequently encourages them to share all of their learning and everything they do in class with their families,” Hanson wrote. “We have no reason to believe that he intended to have students conceal anything from their parents.”

Zeidler said Knight was issued a “letter of direction” but declined to provide that letter, though he said it may be given at a later date in response to a formal request RANGE has submitted to MSD. In general, he said, a letter of direction is a “non-disciplinary measure” that “generally provides instruction and guidance related to professional responsibilities; more formally, it is used as a warning letter providing the recipient instructions of how to proceed.”

Moreover, Zeidler said it was “inaccurate that the district found nothing of concern” in Knight’s classroom, but when asked what was concerning, Zeidler wrote back: “We are not able to get into any deeper details about staff or personnel-related items. Employees are always afforded the right to share their own personal information publicly, as it appears is the case with Mr. Knight sharing information with you. However, school districts have a legal obligation to protect certain parts of employee personnel files from disclosure.” 

Knight told RANGE that he spent the rest of the school year being “the most boring teacher. I just talked from the fucking textbook.” He said he completely stopped doing community-building activities and classroom meetings — the very things that students and parents loved about Knight’s classroom. 

“I was so scared of anything I said being twisted.”

In January after winter break, Knight met with Hanson. During that meeting, Knight told Hanson, “None of these complaints would have been brought up if I was a straight teacher.” 

According to Knight, Hanson replied, “Jacob, I one-hundred-percent agree with you.”

Knight’s union representative, Abbie Blumberg, was in the room for Knight’s conversation with Hanson. In text messages that Knight shared with RANGE, Blumberg agreed that Knight’s characterization of the conversation was accurate. 

RANGE confirmed the phone used in the text thread was Blumberg’s, but Blumberg did not respond to requests for comment sent via text message, email and voicemail.

In a statement to RANGE responding to Knight’s characterization of that meeting, Zeidler wrote that Hanson and Hutchins, who Zeidler said was also in the meeting, remembered Knight saying something slightly different, “that this (investigation) is about his sexuality and that this is an issue because he had been open about his sexuality.” 

Zeidler said the district believes that distinction is important. “What seems like a simple change in semantics is actually an important detail,” Zeidler wrote, “because Hanson’s response was intended to address the issue of crossing professional boundaries in his classroom, a fact documented in the investigation and subsequent reports. Hanson’s comments were intended to point out that professional boundaries may have been crossed by him bringing his personal life into his 5th grade classroom, as many of the issues being brought to the table were about oversharing personal information.”

Asked whether administrators had previously confronted Knight regarding his sharing about dates with his wife, Zeidler responded, “A parent shared a concern verbally to the building principal. This concern was also shared with Mr. Knight.”

“I NEVER heard a single thing about my wife,” Knight wrote in a text response to RANGE. “The ONLY conversations (administration) ever had with me were around sharing about my ‘dating life’ with Justin.” (Capitalizations his.)

No mention of any conversations or discipline appeared in Knight’s May 2023 teacher evaluation, but Zeidler said they never would have: “Discipline is never addressed within certificated staff evaluations, per state law.”

Still, Knight believes what did appear on his evaluation validates his position. “I was still given DISTINGUISHED markings for fostering a safe and positive learning environment. Distinguished is a big deal,” he wrote. 

Mead evaluates teachers on more than 30 criteria using a four-point scale — unsatisfactory, basic, proficient and distinguished. In May 2023, Knight’s performance was evaluated as “distinguished” on more than 60% of all criteria, and over 80% of criteria relating to creating a safe learning environment, maintaining high expectations for achievement and recognizing and facilitating the learning needs of individual students. He was judged “proficient” in all other areas.  

“Whatever concerns they had, they weren’t enough to impact that category,” he concluded. “Those ‘concerns’ in NO WAY justify a clearly discriminatory investigation.”

Knight wouldn’t be with the district when evaluations rolled around for 2024. 

‘I don’t want to repair this relationship’

After the first investigation, Knight said things only got worse.

In early February 2024, he was called to a meeting with Robin Placzek, the director of MSD’s Teaching and Learning Department. According to Knight, Placzek told him a parent, Shawn Lloyd, had complained that Knight had given his daughter — a student in Knight’s class —  side-hugs, and she had been uncomfortable with that physical contact. In the meeting, Zeidler told RANGE, Placzek told Knight he was no longer allowed to touch the student. MEA President Doolittle was there to support Knight, and asked Placzek to give him a chance to explain his side of the story. Placzek did. 

Knight said he explained to Placzek that his students could choose a way to greet him in the mornings, and one of the options was a “side hug,” which was what the student normally chose. In the second investigation, like the first, no disciplinary action was taken against Knight.

Knight said Placzek also said Lloyd was upset that Knight had recommended his daughter for counseling in a permission form he’d sent home with her.

Communicating with RANGE over text message, Lloyd seemed agitated, saying his daughter had been falsely accused of bullying, was “ridiculed and bullied by her peers” and had suffered “emotional trauma” from the counseling recommendation. Lloyd also clarified that, when he talked to the school about the side-hugs, he was not accusing Knight of anything: “It was a comment that my daughter felt uncomfortable by the hugs, and she didn’t know how to communicate that she didn’t want a hug from a male teacher.”

“This is a kiddo that could really use some help with having good friends and like accepting people with differences,” Knight said in an interview. He also said the daughter was not obligated to go to counseling, and the side-hug was a voluntary greeting that the student repeatedly chose from a menu of options that also included a fist-bump and a peace sign.

In an email to RANGE, Hutchins said the district could not comment further on the case.

Knight said he felt traumatized by the experience and felt the need to ask his superiors to take serious steps to distance him from what had happened. “Sounds like a really simple solution,” Knight said he told Placzek. “This kid’s uncomfortable, and the parent’s uncomfortable. I feel unsafe now. Let’s get the kid out of my room.”

Knight said the child was not in his classroom on the Friday that Placzek confronted Knight, but she was back the following Monday, “after I’d voiced my INCREDIBLE discomfort and lack of safety.” She was then removed from class again for the remainder of that week, Knight said.

Knight told RANGE he didn’t know what else to do but to avoid close interaction with the student if possible for the remainder of their time together in the classroom.

But while Knight’s instinct was to withdraw, he said that Doolittle advocated that Knight meet with Lloyd. Doolittle did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. Knight said the district wanted him to smooth things over with Lloyd because Knight would likely have future interactions with him, if only during parent-teacher conferences. Knight said he felt like he had been accused of sexual assault, and had no interest in facing the person who had made the accusation. “I don’t want to repair this relationship,” Knight said he told Doolittle. “There’s nothing to repair.”

Knight said that Doolittle persisted, and followed up within days, telling Knight the district really wanted him to meet with Lloyd. “And so I just go, ‘OK, fuck it, fine,’” Knight told RANGE. “At this point I don’t have any energy to fight. So we meet with the parents … (Lloyd) comes in in a fucking suit and tie. He brings his mom with him. And his ex-wife. All three of them come in.”

Brentwood Principal Eckman and Director of Student and Family Engagement Services Westermann were also at the meeting, Knight said. No one from the union was in the meeting. Zeidler confirmed the meeting happened in an emailed statement: “The principal, Mr. Knight and the student’s parents met to talk about re-entry into the classroom. Information about re-entry was communicated to all parties involved.” 

Neither Knight nor Lloyd felt positive about that meeting. Lloyd told RANGE he felt like his daughter had been let down in Knight’s classroom, and Knight said he felt so disempowered by the process he effectively stopped advocating for himself.  

Soon after that meeting — which came nearly a year after Eckman had first called Knight into her office to warn him about sharing details from his out-life with students — Knight concluded he couldn’t continue teaching at Brentwood. He hadn’t been able to shake the discomfort he felt in the classroom, and to ease those feelings, Knight said he was taking nearly a day every week off from work.

Knight described that MSD offered him a deal: he would resign from teaching immediately, and MSD would pay him through August. In exchange, Knight is bound by the agreement not to sue the district.

“I obviously took them up on it,” Knight told RANGE, beginning to cry as he spoke. “I just feel like I failed (my students).”

Keleah Brower said Knight’s final day was difficult for the entire class.

“The day that he left was very sad. No one didn’t cry that day. It was just a very rough day,” Keleah said, adding that, though she likes Knight’s replacement, she was initially apprehensive to be in the classroom. “I didn’t come to school (for a time) because I was very sad, and I didn’t know who my teacher was at that moment.”

‘I wasn’t crazy’

Knight told RANGE that when he came out, he had anticipated some pushback from conservative folks in Mead, but thought his careful approach and his dedication to his students would temper it. 

The opposite happened, Knight told RANGE, and as the scrutiny intensified throughout the spring of 2023, the young teacher struggled to reconcile the respect and trust he had felt from parents when they thought he was straight with the suspicion he was now getting from a few of them. 

His former partner Justin — a Black man from the Midwest — offered some perspective on the nature of discrimination. Knight shared what Justin told him: “I grew up a gay Black boy. I couldn’t hide my skin color. You could hide your sexuality.”

Knight had been vocally celebrated by the Mead community because he was young, passionate, talented and caring. Unspoken in that assumption, though, Knight said, was also that he was straight. Married to a woman. 

A good role model. 

Justin helped him understand that while Knight was hiding who he was, it allowed the Mead community to hide their feelings as well. “It was really validating (to have someone tell him) hate is hate and discrimination is discrimination,” Knight said. “The things that I was experiencing were real, and I wasn’t crazy.”

‘He is an exceptional educator’

Jaime Stacy is a Mead parent and founder of Strong Women Achieving Greatness (SWAG). She ran for the MSD board last November, but lost to Jennifer Killman, one of two new directors who have made the board reliably more conservative.  

Stacy told RANGE that, despite the outcome of the election, she believes many parents of children in Mead schools are accepting of queer people. She pointed out Mead High School recently adopted a new slogan: “You belong.” 

But she said that by investigating teachers based on allegations surrounding their expressions of their identities, the district was not living up to its own values. 

“We have to be able to stand beside it through our curriculum, in the people that we hire, in the people that are leaders in our community,” Stacy said. “We have to be able to support it in ways in our classrooms that would say diversity, equity and inclusion is a part of this space. It does not take away from classroom learning, as some have said. So this issue is much bigger than one individual.”

She added that it was a tragedy to lose talent like Knight’s from MSD.

“I can tell you the standard of educator that Jacob is,” said Stacy, who confirmed she is friends with Knight. “He is an exceptional educator. When we remove that because of our intolerance, because of our ignorance, then we’re settling for mediocrity. And in our settling, our children are the ones who suffer.”

Erin Sellers & Luke Baumgarten contributed reporting. Legal review provided by Lawyers for Reporters.

Editor’s note: Jacob Knight was formerly known as James Alford.