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"It broke my heart": Spokane teacher shamed, investigated for coming out, paid by school district not to sue

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Jacob Knight  — Courtesy photo
Jacob Knight — Courtesy photo

When Jacob Knight started teaching at Brentwood Elementary in Spokane, he was immediately recognized for his passion and dedication to helping students thrive. After just one year teaching fifth grade, the new hire and district alum was awarded Spokane's coveted Teacher of the Month Award, appearing in a segment on the local news station that reaired throughout his second November with the school.

After only a couple of years, Knight amassed a reputation with students and parents, who vied to earn a spot in his class. "It was validating to be passionate about something and have people see that I was good at what I was doing, really early on too," Knight said in an interview with the SGN. "I had a lot of support from my coworkers, colleagues, and administrators, and the parents in my community. Within two years, I got a big reputation for being an out-of-the-box teacher."

Everything changed when he began coming out, first just to himself. "I started noticing that I was being treated differently actually about, I'd say, fall of last school year. I just started speaking out a little more often, questioning why we did certain policies," Knight recalled. "Then, I started noticing I wasn't invited to all the special meetings anymore."

Brentwood Elementary — Mead School District  

Coming out
Knight wasn't a stranger to the way things happen in the Mead School District. Attending K-12 as a student in the 2010s and then returning to teach in his early twenties, he saw the looks some teachers would pass whenever LGBTQ+ topics were mentioned. At the start of the 2023 school year, a motivational speaker attended one of the staff's training events. "When she announced that she's Queer, the entire room just went silent. I could feel the tension of all the Christian educators in the room feeling uncomfortable," he recalled.

Still, when Knight looked into the eyes of his students, he saw the potential for a better future. Students and parents loved his community teaching approach. Every Monday, he'd check in, prompting them to share "highs" and "lows" from their weekends. In the past, Knight had begun these discussions by bringing up his own adventures, which often included his wife. Mention of his opposite-sex partner never sparked backlash or controversy — students and faculty celebrated and brought Knight gifts on the eve of his wedding.

In 2023, he was no longer with his wife but still led classroom check-ins by telling the students about dates he went on with his new partner. "I strategically would drop hints that my partner and I went ice skating, or my partner and I did these things, and I did this over a couple weeks, just bracing," he said. The students would come to class excited to hear more updates about Knight's new partner and often used she/her pronouns to describe this person.

"I said, 'Yeah, you guys, how would you feel if it wasn't a 'she' but a 'he'?' and one of the students asked, 'So, does this mean you're Gay?' And I was like, 'Yes, it does mean that,' and I showed a picture of my partner, and that was the last time I ever talked about me being Gay. That was it."

That same week, Knight was called into the principal's office and given a strong warning to be careful when sharing about his personal life. Knight proceeded with caution. He began wearing a Pride wristband but did not share any more photos or stories about his boyfriend. A couple weeks later, complaints from parents continued to roll in. For the rest of the year, Knight stayed quiet.

May rolled around, and Knight prepared to send his students to middle school as kinder people. In a final act of pride, he added a rainbow flag to his collection of Spiderman and Whitworth posters. "I didn't hear much about it, and then the last day of school, it was brutal," he recalled. Just as he was closing his room for the year, Knight received an email from an enraged parent. "I was really surprised, because he sent this whole long homophobic email telling me how I needed to be representing Jesus better, that my Pride flag and my dating life were not representing that," he said.

Knight immediately contacted his boss regarding the email, and was informed that the situation would be dealt with. He received no updates over the summer. When he returned for the 2024 school year, Knight contacted the principal to see what had been done.

His boss informed him that because the parent and Knight had previously discussed their shared identities as Christians, he had opened himself up to receive criticism. "I don't know what that means. Just because we have something in common and we connected on that piece doesn't give someone permission," he said. "I'm still an educator; he's still a parent. I'm a professional. You can't speak to someone that way. [My boss] disagreed. She thought it was self-imposed."

Windows, mirrors, and flags
With those words still echoing in his mind, Knight began the first day of school. As a fifth-grade teacher, he was responsible for introducing his class to American history and preparing them for their next phase of education. He always started the year by reading Ruby Bridges to his class and setting them up for an understanding of the year ahead.

"I do this every year," he explained. "My whole speech about how we have windows and we have mirrors and we're going to hear stories that show us people who look like us and believe what we believe, and then we're going to have windows where we see into other people's lives, where they might be different than us. I go down the list, I go, 'People of color, Indigenous people, Gay people, all those things might be types of people we learn about.'"

At the end of the day, Knight was called into the principal's office again. He recalled thinking, "First day of school — what is happening?" From across her desk, the principal told him she had already received a parental complaint. "One of the parents in my classroom, after he went to the open house and saw the Pride flag, he called the superintendent to complain and ask what the policy was for political symbols." The Mead School District does not currently have a policy about Pride flags.

His boss also showed him an anonymous post from an online Facebook group expressing safety concerns after learning about a Gay fifth-grade teacher. "I'm the only male fifth-grade teacher — I'm the only Gay male fifth-grade teacher — I had a Pride flag in my class. I can't express how scary it was to see the implications that I'm unsafe," he said.

A complaint from another parent, before the school year had even begun, read: "He also has hung a large LGBTQI+ flag in his classroom. This display is completely inappropriate for an elementary classroom, or any public educator's classroom... Many parents feel VERY strongly about maintaining our rights and control to teach our children about social, political, and moral issues according to our standards and beliefs. This is not the right of any public educator. The LGBTQI+ movement is a very politically charged agenda...I would argue that this is grooming and even child abuse. And I cannot stand for that."

His problems didn't stop there. The next day, a student came to his desk with a note. "It said, 'I'm not allowt [sic] to learn about gay people,'" he recalled. That Friday, the student's parent sent an email, clarifying that she did not want her daughter learning about "gender, politics, or religion." Knight responded by sharing the state's fifth-grade curriculum. "It's the start of American history, which is a lot about Indigenous people, politics, religion, and gender. That's kind of our whole history," he said. When he returned to class the following Monday, the student was gone. Her parents had pulled her from class in favor of homeschooling.

A few weeks later, another of Knight's students was pulled from class. His parents were considering homeschooling as well, citing offense at the teacher's Pride flag.

At the beginning of November, the district held school board elections, ushering in a new wave of staunch conservatives. Following the election, Knight's union president urged him to remove the Pride flag after multiple representatives used him as an example of "culture wars" playing out in Mead's hallways. Still, Knight refused to put his flag back in the closet.

In mid-November, Knight faced another incident. One of his students had spread a rumor around the fifth grade that spending too much time in his classroom would turn them Gay. He immediately contacted the district.

"It's sexual harassment. I don't care if it's a 10- or 11-year-old — it's inappropriate. And they handled it poorly," he said. The student received one lunch detention but remained in Knight's room. The week before Thanksgiving, he finally took his Pride flag down. "One student pulled me aside privately and went, 'What happened to all your posters?' And I told this one kid — and I think five or six other kids heard — but I said, 'You know, I don't feel safe having all of me up on the walls right now, so I just wanted to bring it all down.' And that was the extent of the conversation."

A month later, as Knight's class prepared to let out for winter break, he received an email about allegations of inappropriate conduct. On the final day of the semester, when Knight and his class were to celebrate the winter holidays with a party, he was instructed not to come to school. Instead, his students would go to the office one at a time to be interviewed by a district official.

The initial concerns were that when he took his flag down, Knight told his students they could not share with their parents why he removed the flag. In the interviews that followed, students were asked about the flag but also baited with other questions, such as whether Knight favored boys in his classroom, if he encouraged the students to say, "Yas, queen," and how often he wore pink overalls to class.

"It felt like a witch hunt," he said, growing emotional as he recalled the event. In official documents from the investigation, the parent's complaint also included Knight coming out to his class, which had occurred the year before and did not affect her child. "It feels like there's an agenda. This stuff created noise and distraction from the great educator that he is. He's crossing professional boundaries," the parent said.

The final blow
When Knight returned to school in January of 2024, he began teaching by the book. There were no more Monday check-ins, no discussions about weekend adventures, and no creative lesson plans. The students took notice. Knight grew increasingly depressed. He started taking sick days once a week.

The final blow came in February, when Knight was investigated again, this time for making a student uncomfortable by presenting her with the option to give a "side hug" as part of a daily greeting. The hug was a part of Knight's dismissal routine and had been encouraged by a female student's parents, stating that she required physical contact to feel secure in school.

"I made sure to only ever offer side hugs in the hallway, in front of other teachers and security cameras," Knight clarified. Following the latest investigation, he was done. Knight began asking his coworkers to donate PTO to help him finish the year out until he could look for a teaching job elsewhere in the district.

Then, the district came to him with a way out. They offered to pay Knight through August if he resigned immediately and agreed not to sue. He took the deal, no questions asked.

Knight's final day was devastating. His students cried as he tried to explain to them why he was leaving. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," he said. "It broke my heart." The students were inconsolable.

With Knight gone, chaos ensued. One afternoon, a student and their parents met up with Knight for lunch. When they returned and shared their adventure with the class, the room became so rowdy that the principal and another teacher both had to come down to try and settle the students.

He is still in contact with many of his students. "Once my student, always my student," he said with tears in his eyes as he gushed about the pride he has for the kids he's seen grow up in his room. "There's one student I'm still in contact with, and I still call her 'Madame President,' because I'm still convinced she's going to rule the world someday."

Knight thought that sharing his authenticity with the Brentwood community would show others who might feel different that they too can belong. Instead, he was harassed, falsely accused, and shamed out of the building.

"What's tricky about the atmosphere of Brentwood is that there's this unspoken rule where you don't speak up. We watch what happens," he said.

The Range, a Spokane publication, recently broke Knight's story. When a former coworker posted about it on Facebook, she received immediate criticism. "She wouldn't name names, but she said after that people came to her and they were very upset that she shared that story. They took it very personally. So she spent the whole day crying. That's the atmosphere," Knight said.

The SGN reached out to the Mead School Board but received no response.

Knight plans to move to Seattle and search for teaching jobs again soon.