By Haley Thomas, contributor
Hours after the first hearing of a lawsuit against Harrisonburg City Public Schools in connection to the district’s policies regarding transgender students, more than 20 Harrisonburg residents passionately expressed support and opposition at the school board’s meeting Tuesday.
“I was not expecting this much of the community coming forth for public comment,” board member Kaylene Seigle told The Citizen after the meeting. “But I believe it spoke volumes.”
Residents packed the Council Chambers, and more than 20 were eager to speak regarding of the district’s policies and approaches surrounding transgender students.
Several acknowledged the walk-out at Harrisonburg High School on Tuesday afternoon. Hundreds of students left their classes in support of transgender student rights, all while the first hearing of the lawsuit was taking place at Rockingham County Circuit Court.
One mother said she had to pick her daughter up from school because she was uncomfortable during the walk-out. Another said that participating students were given literature that encouraged transgender students with unsupportive families to find emergency housing if they ever feel unsafe — an act she said was “promoting kidnapping.”
Carrie Knight disagreed, saying that she’s grateful for a school division that has “spoken out to be inclusive of all communities.”
“It is proven that trans support saves lives, and the policies that are currently in place do just that,” Knight said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Julie Dillenbeck, a graduate of Harrisonburg High and former teacher at Turner Ashby High, encouraged the board to “take a stand for solid education and not sex education” by focusing less on students’ sexuality.
“I thought school was about reading, writing and arithmetic,” Dillenbeck said.
Many in the crowd cheered her on.
“Let’s set a trend for the state and the nation: Let’s forget about pronouns,” Dillenbeck said over applause. “Teachers have enough to be concerned about.”
A junior at Harrisonburg High School said the policies surrounding treatment of transgender students violate students’ First Amendment rights and that parents should have a say in what goes on in the school system.
“Many students like me are put into uncomfortable situations where they are forced to comply with the request of another party to call them by a specific pronoun that is against their personal beliefs,” the student said. “Wouldn’t this be a violation of freedom of speech which is the cornerstone of our society?”
A roar of applause followed, while some heads shook in disagreement.
“Whose kids are they?” Another resident asked the board. “You weren’t there for birth or any other milestones, and now I learn that if she wants to be a cat or an elf, or if she wants to change her name, then she won’t even tell me.”
In addition to policies surrounding treatment of transgender students, some speakers at Tuesday’s meeting also spoke out against books they considered to be too explicit to remain on the shelves of the city schools’ libraries.
Kathy Beery, a former teacher in the city school division, said parents’ wishes should be honored if they don’t want their child to have access to certain books.
“Other people cannot decide what another family wants or does not want for [their child],” Beery said, adding that it should be a conversation between parents and teachers. “But some parents cannot make that decision for all parents.”
Jason Calhoun, who’s spoken to the board several times, said he has a list of 153 books in the schools’ libraries that he says he believes can be “dangerous” to children. He said he was frustrated that no one has asked to see this list and that the district’s policy for having a challenged book reviewed was “bureaucratic.”
“If I tell you guys that there’s 10 bombs in these schools, are you gonna tell me that I have to fill out a form before you look into it?” Calhoun asked the board. He said that if children have access to these books, “they may as well be bombs.”
Calhoun brought to the meeting three books from schools’ libraries: “Seeing Gender” by Iris Gottlieb, “Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison. While speaking, he would pick up one of the books, thumb through the pages, then toss it onto the podium.
“It’s got nothing to do with transgender or gay or lesbian,” Calhoun raised his voice. “It’s about decency.”
Calhoun’s 12-year-old daughter Lacy, a Thomas Harrison Middle School student, told the school board that she now refuses to use school bathrooms because she’s “afraid a boy will walk in.” She said her time in school should be spent learning, not worrying about going to the bathroom.
Seigle later told The Citizen that one of the most eye-opening parts of Tuesday’s meeting was hearing from members of the Muslim community.
“I know some people who are in the minority groups and communities, they don’t always feel like they have a voice,” Seigle said. “Tonight, they were vocal.”
Roman Abdulla said that while he doesn’t have children in the city schools, he has many friends and family members who do. And he said they are having their religious rights infringed upon.
“I come from a culture where there are very strong bonds between families,” Abdulla told the board, adding that he believes the policy is severing those bonds. Giving them access to explicit books, he said, “is like putting a gun in their hands.”
Abdulla said he didn’t see any parents with students in the city schools at the meeting who supported the policy, but several voices rang out in protest.
“Don’t speak for all of us,” one said. Abdulla didn’t respond.
Another parent said he emigrated from Iraq to find better opportunities for his family and future. But he said the the districts approach to transgender students policy was “mental kidnapping.”
Another resident concurred. Speaking through a translator, he said he “is ready to sacrifice his life for the maintenance of ethics and morals and decency in our public education systems.”
Jessi Strom, a Keister Elementary School teacher, said Harrisonburg is “doing the right thing.” She said she’s going to start a family with her wife and she’s proud of her identity. Students, she said, should never feel ashamed of who they are.
“You have no idea the effect it has on the LGBTQ+ community to not feel accepted and loved, especially growing up,” Strom said. “If they can’t feel that way at home, at least they can feel that way in schools.”
Deb Fitzgerald, the interim board chair, thanked those in attendance for speaking as the board took a 5-minute recess after the lengthy public comment period. The crowd, still buzzing, slowly leaked out of the Council Chambers.
“We heard from all different voices, we heard from both sides,” said board member Obie Hill. “I think we really have to think about what’ll happen once this guidance becomes final [at the end of November]. Then the question becomes, ‘what do we do as a board? Do we alter, or fully adopt these new guidelines?’ It’s an interesting time we’re in, but it was good to see people voice how they feel.”
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