Student protest group, backed by adults, vows lengthy fight with RCPS

The Rockingham County School Board is in for a lengthy fight over its decisions to temporarily remove 57 books from school libraries and to adopt model policies regarding students’ sex and gender identities.

Nearly 150 people attended a three-hour rally Saturday at Court Square Theater led by a student group calling itself, “For The Books.”


The private event served as a show of support for the students by parents and other adults angered by the school board’s action as well as time to organize for future protest events. It also gave students some time to continue to air their grievances.

Caitlin Morris, a junior at Spotswood High School and an organizer of Saturday’s rally, said she has always wanted to be a teacher and that the board’s actions were disheartening.

“It means that if I were to work in the Rockingham County School district as a teacher, I would be forced to possibly out my students, which is very sad and I would not wish to do that to anyone,” she said. “Students are developing and to have that happen to them at such a young age is traumatic. And it would also mean that I would have to restrict their reading material. I am of the mindset that books are for everyone, reading is for everyone.”

Jacob Kuhn, also a junior at SHS and a co-organizer of the rally, said the school board should not be restricting knowledge. “We need to have an educated community,” he said.


Another SHS student, Chloe Leach, discussed the content of the banned books, noting that “43 have mentions of queerness and gender; 35 heavily involve people of color and deal with issues of racism and inequality; 23 of these books are about how women are treated unequally in the workplace and overall; and 15 deal with mental health issues. All were banned on the school board’s own opinion and we, students, were never consulted. Students are often overlooked in political conversations.”

Kai Beard, a trans student, said the ban won’t keep students from seeking out the books from other places and reading them.

A program for the event listed three places around Harrisonburg that are either providing space to donate banned books or have space dedicated to banned books.

Beard also said the model policies, which instruct school staff to refer to students only by the name and pronouns respective to the name and sex listed in their official record and requires parental approval or documentation to change the official record, could put some students in harm’s way. “Not every trans kid has support at home and none should be put in a dangerous situation at home,” they said.

A number of adult speakers took to the stage to voice their support for the students and offer guidance.

Ashley Saunders, the mother of a trans son, told the students, “You are not alone, you are not alone in your outrage at the school board, at chairman (Matt) Cross. Chairman Cross and three others on our school board who are voting on these things do not have your best interest in mind,” she said.

Saunders called the board’s actions inappropriate and applauded the students for standing up for their rights.

Annette Fritz encouraged the protestors to be resilient. “I don’t have a lot of hope in this school board or in the current superintendent,” she said. “I hope there will be change and I think that they have to listen eventually.”

As more people join the cause, she said it will be important for protestors to support each other to continue going forward. “We will not be isolated, we will not feel discouraged.”

Fritz’s husband, Patrick, followed and urged students to know their rights.

“As high school students, you do have limited First Amendment protections while you are in school,” he said. “Some states have passed laws to provide additional protections, the Commonwealth of Virginia is not one of them.”

One of the most valuable forms of protest, he said, is engaging with local government. “You can do that and you can do that as a high school student and the one thing that I would just implore you to remember is to speak your mind, even when your voice shakes.”

Patrick Fritz also warned the students that “exercising your rights always has consequences. … Challenging the power centers is always, always, always going to have pushback. Power concedes nothing. If you want to be heard, you have to reach out and take that power, take that power back.”

Addressing queer students, Patrick Fritz said schools have a responsibility to provide a safe learning environment and that they cannot ignore harassment based on a student’s behavior, gender expression or sexuality. “They cannot sweep that harassment under the rug and ignore it,” he said.

Fortunately, Patrick Fritz said, there are teachers and others in the schools who support marginalized students; “Know who your safe people are. Let them advocate for you.”

Bianca Starr of Richmond, the current Miss Gay United States, made a brief appearance and told the students she hopes they stand strong together in their protest.

Retired librarian Sandra Parks lamented the school board’s decision to bypass a reconsideration process before banning the books.

“Every school division has a version of this and Rockingham County does indeed have this policy, they just chose not to follow it for library books,” she said.

Parks said she has been involved in several reconsideration situations and many are quickly resolved when a parent says they are only concerned about their child not reading a book. There’s always a substitute book in those situations, she said. The challenge, Parks said, comes when a parent says they don’t want any student reading the book.

When the policy is followed, the parent is then asked to fill out a lengthy questionnaire with questions “that lead to the real issue with the book.” If the questionnaire is returned, the principal forms a community committee composed of a librarian, a teacher, a parent, an administrator, sometimes a reading specialist and a community member outside the school system.

In the end, Parks said, the process has been reaffirming even when a decision went against her vote.

“It’s a community process and it makes sure that it’s not just one voice that is heard. It still gives room for that voice to say something, just not to be the only voice. That to me is really protecting parents’ rights without giving any one parent control over what everybody else in the division can read. And that is what has happened with our current situation,” Parks said.

Patrick Fritz urged people to show up for the next meeting of the school board at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12 at the Rockingham County Administration Center and again voice their concerns about the book ban and model policies.

A meeting will be held Feb. 9 in Harrisonburg for protestors to write letters to the board and other meetings are being planned.

“This is a movement, it is not an event,” Patrick Fritz said. “This is something that is going to last for a long time.”

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