Instead of switching its leaders each year, school board mulls changes

The Harrisonburg City School Board members — (from left to right) Kaylene Seigle, Obie Hill, Andy Kohen, Deb Fitzgerald, Kristen Loflin and Nick Swayne — welcome students back to school in 2019. (File photo)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

In a move billed as a way to promote stability, school board members Deb Fitzgerald and Andy Kohen on Tuesday proposed changing the city’s school board handbook to extend the terms of board chair and vice chair to two calendar years, up from one year.

The board didn’t vote on the proposal during Tuesday’s work session. And after a lively debate, Kohen said he was open to more revisions to the handbook, if needed. 

The board is required to reorganize each year, but Fitzgerald said “given that the school board of the city and city council work so closely together, that sometimes provides some interesting hiccups.”

The city council reorganizes in January of each odd year, which follows the council elections. Fitzgerald said sometimes the mayor remains the same, noting that Mayor Deanna Reed has been in that post since 2017, “but we change out school board members a lot more quickly.”

“And that means that often in the conversations about the budget, particularly about HHS2, we have turnover on our side of the discussion,” Fitzgerald said, referring to the new high school that’s being built. “We have new people circulating in and out of the school board liaison.”

She suggested that the board’s chair and vice chair terms should match more closely with the city council because “we are looking for a better, closer relationship.”

Kohen said he’s talked with school board members from other districts during his years of attending annual Virginia School Board Association conferences, and “it’s an unusual situation to have leadership change every year.”

“It’s more typical that leadership has a continuity, in part because you become a leader and after six months you finally figure out how to do it,” Kohen said.

Not all the board members were sold on the idea, though. Board members Obie Hill and Kaylene Seigle said because school board members serve a four term, the timing essentially prevents some members from assuming a leadership position.

Hill said that he’s in his third year on the board and Seigle is in her fifth year and neither of them have served as chair or vice chair.

“And when you’re a minority, and I’m not talking about race, but when you’re in the minority, you really don’t have the opportunity to express yourself, and so I believe that this is one of those same things,” Hill said. “Where the majority who are in power prevents those who would like to have the opportunity to lead.”

He also said he’s supposed to represent the community on the board. 

“And when we don’t have the opportunity to speak up for those people in a leadership position, you get lost in the fray of everything else that happens on the board,” Hill said. 

He also noted that one of the proposed changes to the handbook requires that in addition to a board member being nominated for leadership, that has to be seconded.

“So my position, if someone nominates me, and I don’t get a second, there’s no way I’m gonna serve as chair or vice chair. And the same thing goes for everyone else,” Hill said. “I just think that on this document, we have to agree to disagree.”

Implementation of new policy supporting transgender youth

In a report from the district’s student support staff, several counselors gave updates on the implementation of the recently adopted Virginia model policy regarding the treatment of transgender students in schools. Along with providing training for how to handle the use of chosen names and pronouns, support staff outlined concrete steps for documenting name changes, using gender inclusive terms in and out of the classroom, and how to navigate the ambiguity surrounding gender transition and when to bring parents into the discussion.

“If a student confides in the staff that they have a preferred name or pronoun, staff should honor the request and also consider the privacy in that request,” said Megan Marker, a behavior specialist at Spotswood Elementary. 

April Howard, the district’s chief officer for student support, said they’re asking teachers to share information regarding a student who might identify with the LGBTQ+ community with their assigned counselor, “and to trust the student support team to do the outreach, assessment and intervention around this topic. “

“The research shows clearly that affirming a students chosen name and pronoun is one of the most important strategies in decreasing suicidality and improving outcomes for students,” Howard said.

She also said gender transition is a private issue, and it’s highly detrimental to students “to out them to other school staff members, peers or the student’s family.”

“The process of communicating about a student’s gender transition should happen in collaboration with the student, not to or for the student,” Howard said. “The process should be led by a student’s feelings of safety and security. The ultimate goal is to help a student to safely come out to their parents with the support of trusted adults, and sometimes this takes a long time and a lot of hard work.”

Howard also said if a parent’s acceptance of their child’s identity is unknown to staff, it’s not appropriate for them to take the lead on that communication. A study by the Movement Advancement Project reported that 27% of trans youth said their parents were supportive of their transition.

“Students will often come out to their friends, teachers and coaches before coming out to parents,” Howard said. “School should be a safe space while they work through the transition until they’re able to have that challenging conversation with their families. “

Hill asked what the procedure is to bridge the gap between a transgender student and an unknowing parent, to which Howard responded that “this is not a one-and-done.”

“This is not that a student says to us, ‘my parents do not know, please do not tell them,’ and we check a box and that’s what we do for the remainder of the year. This is an ongoing process of counseling and support with our team. But it is ultimately our duty to keep them safe and to respect the confidentiality,” Howard said.

Hill said that as a professional counselor, he’s found it to be “very effective to get parent involvement.”

“And we also have the Department of Social Services, and we have [Child Protective Services] CPS who also work along with us to protect that child. And law enforcement of course,” Hill said. “So we do have community resources in place to assist if things got out of hand.”

Board member Nick Swayne said he looks at the school support system as preventive medicine. While the district works with partners like the police and Child Protective Services, “those are reactive.”

“Some kids got beaten, some kids got hurt, some kids [have] been abused, and now we can reach out to those people and they are definitely our partners, but that kid got hurt,” Swayne said.

He said that as a victim of childhood abuse at the hand of his parents under the guise of religion, “I take that very seriously.”

“And so while I do think it’s very important that you inform the parents, I think sometimes the kid has a better sense for [how] their parents are going to respond — and that kid has been beaten at home and has not told anybody about it, and so they’re trying to protect themselves, and they don’t want their parents to know about it,” Swayne said. “We’ve got to balance that.”

Hill said he had experienced that same exact situation, and if it weren’t for his third grade teacher who reported the incident, he “probably wouldn’t be where I am today.”

“So Dr. Swayne, thank you for sharing that, because you made me comfortable sharing that with the public,” Hill said. 

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