School board meeting gets heated at times Tuesday over transgender policy, equity plan

Emotions at times reached a boiling point Tuesday evening during a meeting of the Pulaski County School Board as numerous citizens spoke out on policies regarding transgender students and the recently approved Comprehensive Plan for Equity.

While neither issue was on the official agenda for discussion, school officials apparently learned ahead of time that a number of citizens planned to attend the meeting and comment on the two issues.

That knowledge led School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers to request that the school board allow him to read a statement prior to the board hearing public comments.

“First, I’d like to thank you for the courage of leadership that has been shown over the past several months in regard to our work on equity,” Siers began.  “Nobody ever promised that any of this would be easy, but neither did anybody warn us that it would be as difficult as it seems to have become.”

“It is unfortunate that our leadership on the issue of equity has been cast in such a negative light within our community,” he added.

“In a few minutes, you are going to hear from some of our citizens who have concerns about our equity mission, goals, and requirements from the Virginia Department of Education and general assembly.  I have recently had conversations with individuals in the community about their concerns and also watched a video from a local church service where the issue of equity was discussed this past Sunday.  Let me just say that the misinformation is astounding, and it seems that there may be an intentional attempt to stoke the fire with fear and hatred in order to drum up outrage from our citizens.  Although it is unfortunate that there is such vehement opposition to a school division trying to make life better for kids, it is our reality and our issue to work through,” Siers continued.

He then listed several “points of clarification” and “editorial observations” to address comments and claims being made by some citizens on the transgender and equity issues.

Siers’ full statement can be found following this article.

Undeterred, several citizens made comments.

Billy Williams, who has addressed the board on transgender student policies in the past, was the first to speak Tuesday.

He called on the school board to “vote against any transgender policy that subjects our children to a curriculum based on an ideology that promotes a lifestyle choice that should be left to parents and guardians of our children.”

“The school system is overstepping its boundaries in promoting an LGBTQ lifestyle in our public schools,” Williams said to loud applause from the crowd.

Pastor Donald Jones told the board a lot of attention is being given to civil rights – including in the transgender community where he said there is a desire for equal rights.

“What about the large majority of students’ rights,” Jones asked. “Those who live with their gender identity from birth. Do we throw out their rights completely?

“Can you afford to ignore the potential civil suits brought by someone who’s young person was attacked by someone who absolutely had no business being in the locker room with them,” Jones asked.

He continued that the state’s model policy for the treatment of transgender students states that transgender students should “be allowed to use the facility that corresponds with their gender identity.”

“Additionally,” Jones quoted from the policy, “school staff should not confront the student about their gender identity upon entering into the restroom.

“That is astounding to me,” he exclaimed.

School Board Chairman Tim Hurst told Jones the school board has yet to receive guidance from the state Department of Education or the Virginia School Board Association on a transgender policy.

Another speaker, a doctoral student at Virginia Tech, noted she had been invited to attend and speak by “community members.” She was one of three speakers who said they had been invited to the meeting – something many in the audience expressed displeasure with, saying the meeting was for Pulaski County citizens.

The speaker, a marriage and family therapist specializing in working with the trans community spoke on how, she said, 85 percent of transgender adolescents consider suicide during their youth, and 50 percent commit or attempt suicide while in their teens.

She urged the school board to consider how to make the transgender community and children feel like they belong and are not a burden.

Brittany Lambert presented the board with results of a survey about students wearing masks because of COVID-19. She said 75 percent of respondents favor relaxation of mask mandates.

“All teachers have or could have been vaccinated and children carry little risk of spreading the virus. So why must this abuse of kids continue,” she asked.

She said information has been released on the American Federation of Teachers influencing what the Centers for Disease Control will release on new guidance specifically on the re-opening of schools.

“And you wonder why people don’t trust the science,” Lambert said. “Because science always seems to be made up of one part science, one part liberal agenda and one part politics.”

“It should be left to every person to take their personal health as their personal responsibility and stop waiting for the government’s permission to get back to normal,” she added.

One speaker said he believes the No. 1 concern of the school board is the betterment of children. He said that was the same for those in the audience.

He added that while the board is responsible to the state board of education, it is also responsible to the people of Pulaski County.

“This is a conservative county. The morals of Pulaski County are very different from those coming out of Richmond. I, for one, get angry when people in Richmond or D.C. try to push ungodly morals down our throats,” he said, adding he hopes that when decisions need to be made, the board considers they represent a very conservative Pulaski County.

Another doctoral candidate at Tech noted that transgender students pose no risk to other students.

She was followed by Dr. Scott Hall, a former Pulaski County teacher who is now a family medicine physician. Hall said the COVID-19 virus measures 5 microns in diameter. He said, however, “the pores (openings) on this mask you’re required to wear measure 20 microns” – easily large enough for the COVID virus to get through.

Hall asked what the school board plans to do to help transgender students with their gender dysphoria get the counseling they need.

“I don’t want to see these children hurt,” he said.

Marcus Weaver-Hightower, a professor of education at Virginia Tech, told the board, “Some people who are born into a body that matches the one we feel inside sometimes find it very hard to understand that being transgender is not something one chooses.

“Transgender individuals deeply feel they are a gender that does not match their body. I can hardly imagine how alarming that could be,” he said.

One speaker noted how some transgender boys compete against biological girls and break records and knock the girls out of sports scholarships.

“That’s not fair. It’s pandering to minority groups while making everyone else suffer,” he said.

Hurst asked the speaker if that had happened in Pulaski County and the man acknowledged it had not.

“Neither was the last speaker (from Pulaski County),” someone in the crowd shouted.

Robinson District school board representative Dr. Paige Cash responded to the speaker.

“We don’t know what the guidance will be when it finally gets to us from the Virginia School Board Association (VSBA). I’ve taken notes, Ms. (Penny) Golden (Ingles District) has taken notes. I’ve got four pages. We’re listening to everything. We’re going to try and make something work when it comes to us that is acceptable to everybody. Don’t make the assumption that because we sit up here we’re not listening,” Cash said.

Ashley Bowman noted she is a member of the school system’s equity committee.

“In four years of coming to school board meetings, I’ve never seen this many people attend,” she said, noting her dismay at people attacking the school board. She added that mask mandates had been handed down to the schools by the state. “They (local school officials) don’t have a choice.”

Bowman said Critical Race Theory has never been discussed by the equity team. “CRT has never been discussed. Not talked about. It’s not in the [equity] plan. The plan is solid. We’re not villains here.

“We’re trying to make sure all students feel valued. That they feel like they have an equal and level playing field.

“If you want to make a difference, come to school board meetings. The board would welcome that,” Bowman said.

Gina Paine told the board she had learned she was being referred to lately as a “member of a faith-based anti-equity movement.”

“I hear you showed a video of me at your meeting yesterday (Monday) – one of me speaking at my church. I thank you that you find me so important,” Paine said, noting that the school system’s equity plan is “full speed ahead … based on the meeting yesterday.”

Paine said Siers had mentioned in February that $20,000 to $40,000 would be spent on teacher training programs concerning the equity agenda. Paine asked Siers what organization would be hired to conduct the training.

Siers responded, “Equity Collaborative.”

Paine asked if Siers was familiar with Equity Collaborative and was Loudoun County Schools consulted during the search for an organization to hire.

“We know they have done some work in Loudoun County,” Siers responded.

Paine responded that publicly available information on Equity Collaborative shows their model for training teachers includes the Critical Race Theory model.

“Have we signed a contract with Equity Collaborative to train our teachers,” Paine asked.

Siers said training of school administrators had begun with Equity Collaborative.

“Have we entered into a contract,” Paine pressed.

“Yes, we have,” Siers responded.

Siers responded, “Absolutely,” when asked by Paine if he would be willing to provide the public with the contract if they asked for it.

“I heard in your opening statement that nowhere is Critical Race Theory included, yet you’re hiring an outfit to train our teachers…”

Siers interjected, “Nowhere in the curriculum.”

“But teachers will be trained in Critical Race Theory,” Paine stated.

Siers said, “No.”

“The training we’ve been doing is based more on adaptive leadership,” he said. “There has been no mention of Critical Race Theory in anything we have done. To date we have worked on listening skills, understanding how to provide respect as a listener. How to provide feedback as a listener. No discussion of Critical Race Theory.

“The contract is to do training with administrators and each school’s equity team. At this point there is no plan to do training with all of our teachers, although that is a requirement next year by the General Assembly and Department of Education, but no decisions have been made on who will provide that training or what it will consist of,” Siers said.

Paine urged the audience to look up Equity Collaborative online. “They were hired by Loudoun County Schools and introduced Critical Race Theory into their training.”

Paine told Siers he had indicated in February that the school system’s equity plan would “allow 20 percent control of literature and teaching materials by your hand-picked equity teams for the schools. Are you willing to release to parents a list of the literature they choose for each school, and will students be allowed to opt out?”

Siers responded, “Yes.”

“Schools are in the process of doing their audits currently so there has been no materials purchased with school funds toward that end. But certainly, we will provide a list of whatever is purchased. You just have to do a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request at the time that information is available,” Siers explained.

Paine asked if he would publicly release the list rather than require a FOIA request, possibly on Board Docs, and Siers said he could do that.

“Will children be allowed to opt out of the reading materials that are chosen,” Paine asked again.

“I can’t answer that until we know what those materials are and how the teachers plan to utilize them,” Siers responded.

Paine then told Hurst that on previous occasions when she and Billy Williams had addressed the board, some people who spoke after them had referred to them as “racist and transphobic” for questioning the equity plan. She described the speakers as being members of the equity advisory team.

“Were these advisory team members tasked with acting as the board’s public enforcement team,” Paine asked.

“Absolutely not,” Hurst responded.

“In the fall when the plan is in place and we have students who push back on it, will they be maligned in their classrooms,” Paine asked.

“No,” Hurst responded.

“Can you give me assurance of that,” Paine asked.

“Will you give us assurance that you will say the truth when you speak in front of your congregation at church,” Hurst responded.

“Yes,” Paine shot back.

“Everybody is an individual and you can’t guarantee what one person will or will not say,” Hurst responded. “So, no, I can’t guarantee that.”

Paine asked Massie District representative Becki Cox to define what equity means.

Cox replied it involves giving support to individuals so they can succeed in education. Equality, she noted, means giving everyone the same thing.

“It’s not all about the color of someone’s skin,” Cox exclaimed.

“Was it not called a Racial and Social Equity Plan,” Paine responded.

“And the board sent it back for more-inclusive wording,” Cox said.

Paine asked Siers if there had been a statement placed on the school system’s website “condemning the community as systemically racist?”

“There was no condemnation of the community, but there was an admission that there had been practices that were systemically racist that have impacted education for generations in Pulaski County,” Siers said.

“You had specific instances that led you to make that statement,” she asked Siers.

“Yes,” he responded. “They were covered in the presentation when all that [equity plan] was presented. Pulaski County has a long history of legal issues during segregation of not providing an equal education and lost a court case pertaining to that when Frank Critzer was superintendent and had to take steps to correct that. Things that occurred here through generations are still reverberating through public education in Pulaski County.”

Cox relayed a personal story about her son who has Down Syndrome and how he did not receive the extra help from the school system to help him read.

“That’s the kind of equity that we want to give our students,” Cox said.

“I understand that,” responded Paine. “No one disagrees with that. We know through Individual Education Plans (IEPs), which there are many, resources are being expended on children where it’s needed. None of us have a problem with that.

“You (school board and Siers) interjected an agenda here that started out on a foundation of racial equity. You’re hiring an outfit that utilizes Critical Race Theory’s model. And for you to say anything else is just deceiving,” Paine charged.

One speaker said everyone is talking about how much help transgender students need, “but my child doesn’t have help,” she said, noting her son’s need for a para to assist him.

“If we’re going to make sure everyone has an even playing field, EVERYONE will have an even playing field,” she stressed.

Another speaker who fosters transgender children and is new to the area said the level of hate for transgenders here is “just amazing … very disheartening.”

Pat Catron, a former teacher and counselor in Pulaski County took exception with the suicide rates mentioned by a previous speaker.

She said the rates mentioned apply to transgenders when they get older and realize they have made a mistake.

“They realize that I’ve filled my body with hormones, I’ve mutilated my genitalia, and here I am 21 or 22. What do I do now? You can’t go back,” Catron said.

“Parents send children to school to be educated, not indoctrinated,” she added.

“When I was chair of the social studies department, we always made sure when teaching government that we not let children know if we were Democrats or Republicans. We would have been fired. That word came down from the school board office. You do not indoctrinate children in politics,” she said.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot

 

Statement from School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers:

Editor’s note: Pulaski County School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers read the following statement just before the School Board heard public comments during Tuesday’s meeting.

Mr. Chairman, Madam Chairwoman, and Members of the Board,

Thank you for allowing me to speak this evening in advance of the public comments.  First, I’d like to thank you for the courage of leadership that has been shown over the past several months in regard to our work on equity.  Nobody ever promised that any of this would be easy but neither did anybody warn us that it would be as difficult as it seems to have become.  You are each to be applauded for making the decisions that have established Pulaski County as the leading school division in Southwest Virginia for doing the work that is very much needed and making the changes that are required.

It is unfortunate that our leadership on the issue of equity has been cast in such a negative light within our community when only a few months ago, Pulaski County Public Schools was being celebrated for leading the district in offering four days of in-person instruction to all students and then leading the state in returning to five days of classes per week.  People were singing our praises when we were the first division to find an acceptable way for band, cheer, and football students to showcase their talents in front of the largest crowds that have attended any event during the past year.  It was that same courageous leadership that led to the construction of this beautiful middle school that has made education a much more positive experience for hundreds of our county’s children.  It has been the vision and priorities of this School Board that resulted in teacher raises for six consecutive years, significant reductions in health insurance premiums for all employees, and ensured that every school became fully accredited for the first time in a decade.  If anybody wanted to do a study on effective transformative school leadership that has genuinely made life better for teachers and students, there is no better example than Pulaski County Public Schools.

In a few minutes, you are going to hear from some of our citizens who have concerns about our equity mission, goals, and requirements from the Virginia Department of Education and general assembly.  I have recently had conversations with individuals in the community about their concerns and also watched a video from a local church service where the issue of equity was discussed this past Sunday.  Let me just say that the misinformation is astounding and it seems that there may be an intentional attempt to stoke the fire with fear and hatred in order to drum up outrage from our citizens.  Although it is unfortunate that there is such vehement opposition to a school division trying to make life better for kids, it is our reality and our issue to work through.  So, in an attempt to set the stage for these public comments, I’d like to make a few points of clarification and a few editorial observations:

Points of Clarification-

  1. There is nothing on the agenda this evening regarding our equity work or the state’s model guidance for the treatment of transgender students. If folks came here tonight hoping to influence a vote, the impact of their effort will not be known today.
  2. The state’s policy for the treatment of transgender students is currently being worked into a policy proposal by the legal staff with the Virginia School Board’s Association. We do not yet know what the policy will state about bathrooms or locker rooms, so all statements about a decision having already been made are completely false.  These policies will be sent to us later this month or in early June.  They will then be presented to the school board for discussion and recommended revisions.  A vote will not occur on any of these policies until the month after they are made available to the public on Board Docs and the School Board has had an opportunity to discuss them. (Most likely in July or August)
  3. PCPS has not adopted a curriculum that is based on critical race theory. (Most of us aren’t even sure exactly what that means.)  The Virginia Department of Education establishes the course standards and we teach to those standards.  The state standards for every course can be found on the Virginia Department of Education’s website.  The only curricula that we develop is with local electives and there has been nothing new approved for next year.
  4. Every school division in Virginia is currently attempting to work through the same issues as is PCPS. We’re trying to decide how to approach inequity and ensuring the rights of every student in a way that meets the legal guidelines as set forth by the state but also makes a meaningful impact for students and families.  The work that we’re doing will not harm any student and might actually make things better for some.   

Editorial Observations-

  1. It is my hope and belief that the citizens of Pulaski County will start to take the time to actually look at what we’re working on and not assign so much value to the misinformation that is put out on social media or spoken from the pulpit. We are more than happy to meet with folks to discuss any initiative that we undertake and we welcome any and all feedback when it is based on an actual set of facts and not from assumptions or speculations made on social media.
  2. Every single school employee and School Board member here today has given something of significance to the children of Pulaski County. We volunteer our time for after school events, donate money for every cause that comes our way, tutor those who struggle, and publicly celebrate the successes of our kids whenever possible.  We have people here who’ve personally spent hundreds of dollars to provide a struggling family with a good Christmas.  We have some who spend their Thanksgiving break delivering holiday meals to families in need.  We personally pay for athletics equipment for students who can’t afford it, buy coats for kids in the winter, cover the costs of field trips, and send kids to camp.  We’ve even had some who went together to cover all funeral expenses as a way to ease a family’s burden after a student unexpectedly passed away.  PCPS is made up of some really great people who are doing amazing things on behalf of the children in our community.  Recent attempts to cast us as villains in some type of politically charged soap opera are incredibly unfair, profoundly wrong, and should be unacceptable to our community.
  3. Finally, public schools do not have an incentive to judge lifestyles or the resources to sustain animosity. We take care of children.  Doing right by every student is what drives our decisions and making lives better for kids is what dictates our actions.  It is really the only work worth doing and fortunately, for Pulaski County, we do it well.

Thank you again for letting me speak this evening.  At this time, we’ll open it up for public comments.