‘Students have been asked about their opinion a whopping total of zero times’: Rockingham County students walk out to protest policies

A colorful flag in the foreground and students watching in the background
Spotswood High School students participate in Wednesday’s walkout over the Rockingham County School Board’s decisions to temporarily ban 57 books and to approve Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s model policy regarding students’ gender identities. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

In response to two decisions by the Rockingham County School Board in recent weeks, students at Spotswood, Broadway, Turner Ashby and East Rock high schools staged walkouts in protest during school on Wednesday morning. 

Students behind the for.the.books_rcps Instagram account organized the walkout. Those student organizers created that account in response to the two policies that were approved 4-1 by the Rockingham County School Board – one policy temporarily banning 57 books from school libraries and classrooms until they are reviewed and approved, and the second policy adopting Gov. Glenn Younkin’s model policies on gender identity. 

The mood was defiant for students at Spotswood High School, while for students at Broadway High School, it became emotional. At both walkouts, students spoke about their fears about discrimination as a result of the policies. They also vented frustrations with the RCPS Board of Education. Many students at both walkouts felt that the decisions were motivated by political purposes, and expressed frustration that student concerns were not being heard. 

“100% of these books were banned purely on the school board’s own opinion,” one student speaker said. “Meanwhile, students have been asked about their opinion a whopping total of zero times.” 

A person holds the book "Drama"
A Spotswood High School student holds up one of the 57 books the school board has temporarily banned. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

While many of the books on the RCPS list that have been temporarily removed include stories about the LBGTQ+ community, seven of those books were not even on RCPS library shelves. Board member Sara Horst has said those seven books landed on the list in case they were made available in an individual classroom.   

Some students pointed out that while the pulled books includes those from the “Heartstopper” series that features an unlikely friendship between two boys becoming more than friends, other stories that feature intimate details of heterosexual relationships were not pulled. 

Students at Spotswood held books recently banned by the RCPS School Board as well as signs of support and pride flags. Student speakers addressed the crowd holding banned books in the air, read the list of banned books out loud and called for student and parent action.

Members of the media were only allowed to interview students if they had their parents’ permission. At Broadway High School, no photos of students’ faces were allowed to be taken to ensure their privacy. 

At Broadway High School, students said bullying in school can become intolerable. Some students said that they are “barked at” in the hallways. The policies single out and target gay and trans students, according to the students, and make it dangerous for those students who are not comfortable coming out to their parents. 

Virgil Knick, a student at Broadway High School, said he is horrified with the recent decisions by the school board, so much so that it is affecting his health. 

“I haven’t been able to sleep, I’ve been staying up, I can’t focus in class, I worry about other students,” Knick said. 

Knick’s father agreed. 

“None of the policies have anything to do with helping the students, regardless of what they [the school board members] say,” said Ethan Knick, who was there to chaperone the walkout. 

A colorful book held in someone's hands
“This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson is one of the 57 books temporarily banned. Many students who joined Wednesday’s walkout in protest carried some of the books that were on the list to be removed from school libraries. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

Chase Bandell was one of those students who had changed their name in the system. Bandell said they were scared for those people who will be bullied for being themselves.  

“They are refusing to look at the kids, they are refusing to hear them out,” Bandell said, weeping. “It’s not about keeping kids safe. This is going to kill kids. Kids are going to die because of this.” 

Board member Hollie Cave, who joined the board this year after winning a seat in the November election, proposed the ban and said she had reviewed some of the 57 books on the list, which includes he list includes “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George Johnson and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky. At the Jan. 8 school board meeting Cave said she if school officials want to support mental health of students, they should limit what they’re exposed to. “We want to talk a lot about mental health and taking care of our kids. I think we need to start with what we’re putting in their heads,” she said.

Zach, a transgender student at Spotswood High School, told The Citizen that he took part in the walkout to stand up for transgender kids “who cannot stand up for themselves.” 

Zach said that while he has a loving support system, many students do not, putting them in danger. 

“[That decision] made me feel really bad,” Zach said. “I have a lot of trans friends that won’t be able to be called by their pronouns or by their names, and are going to be outed to their parents, which is awful.” 

Zach’s mother Tracy, who was one of several parents onsite to help chaperone the walkouts, told The Citizen that the implementation of the policy scared her. Teachers were required to submit the names of any students in their classrooms who went by a name “other than their legal name or a nickname that is commonly associated with their legal name.”

“To make a registry that then can be released, or they can keep track of the kids or they can target the kids, I have a major issue with that,” Tracy said. 

Students at both schools say that for the most part, their peers are against the book bans and the model policies, but the walkouts are helping to raise awareness and calling people to action. 

Rex Fritz, a senior at Broadway High School, referenced the poem “First They Came” by Pastor Martin Niemöller and called for parents and other students to stand up for trans students who are being directly impacted by the model policies. 

“I know that this won’t stop with trans kids,” Fritz said. “The poem didn’t end with ‘and then they left me alone.’ It ended with ‘and then they came for me.’”

Students at Spotswood High School embrace as speakers talk about their opposition to the school board’s decision. (Photo by Bridget Manley)

*Editor’s note: Turner Ashby High School was added to the list of walkouts after publication.

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