Tempers rise over Transgender rights

Published 5:04 pm Friday, September 22, 2023

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It was a night filled with tension-filled debate, public policy concerns, public outbursts, and community division over transgender rights, as the first 2023-2024 school board meeting saw heated discourse. Held at John F. Kennedy Middle School on Thursday, Sept. 21, the night saw residents come out to voice their opposition and support to the draft transgender policy updates that will be voted on in October. Before agenda speakers voiced their concerns, Board Member Dawn Marie Brittingham of the Holy Neck borough made a motion after she called for a point of order, stating that the process used for constituents to sign up to speak is “out of order.”

“I make a motion to allow any citizen who is prevented from being signed up because the form of process being out of order that they may be allowed to speak, if they so choose to still speak, at either the agenda time or the non-agenda time due to the fact that the school board has violated its policy and process by enacting a new form and process without the school board previously adopting it,” Brittingham said.

The SPS School Board Policy states in Article 8 in Section 2-8.1 titled “Early and Late Appearances Defined” that any remaining speakers “will be allowed to speak under the agenda item entitled ‘Late Appearances’ or they may submit their remarks in writing to the Clerk of the School Board to be read during Late Appearances” and that “Any person desiring to be heard under ‘Early Appearances’ must notify the Clerk of the School Board after the release of the regular meeting agenda to the public, but no later than noon on Wednesday preceding the day of the regular School Board meeting.” 

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Likewise, Section 2-8.2, titled “Late Appearances Defined; Notice Requirement,” it says that those wishing to speak under “Late Appearances” will “be permitted five minutes for the purpose of presenting their views,” and that they “shall notify the Clerk of the School Board by no later than 5:00 p.m. on the day of the regular School Board meeting.”

After discussion over the sign-up form, the motion failed in a three to four vote with School Board Members Judith Brooks-Buck of the Nansemond borough, Phyllis Byrum of the Whaleyville borough, Karen Jenkins of the Cypress borough, and Board Chair Riddick voting in opposition of the motion. Following which, the public hearing resumed. Cyndi Petrich voiced her opposition to the policy changes while noting her daughter’s struggle with gender issues. She emotionally reflected on her daughter embracing her femininity following counseling.

“She has said to me numerous times… ‘Mama, thank you so much for leading me to Living Waters. I’m so thankful that I didn’t take hormones that would’ve changed my physical makeup or surgeries that would’ve marred my body for life.’ She would’ve gone through those changes and still have the same issues and challenges,” Petrich said. “So what this policy wants to do is it wants to take away the parents ability to intervene in the lives of their children. And this policy also sends an unspoken message to children that their homes and their parental support is not safe. This disrupts the family unit. Who knows the children better than their parents?”

Thersa Anderson voiced her opposition to the policy changes having a negative impact on girls.

“Many of you on the board have children or grandchildren. I cannot imagine any of you thinking it is ok for a biological boy to be in a locker room with your daughter or granddaughter,” Anderson said. “I do not know either of you well, but I believe I know you well enough to know that you would’ve felt uncomfortable showering and changing with a biological boy. With that said, why do you feel girls today should have a biological boy in their locker room?”

However, others came out to show their support for the policy as well as supporting transgender students. Patricia Holloman talked about the concerns of the policy and parents being excluded.

“Last month, I heard a lot of comments regarding the transgender policy and how the policy would include an exception for the disclosure to parents in the event that there’s deemed to be a real life threat to the student’s physical or mental well-being,” Holloman said. “I would remind parents that this policy only allows that section for the most extreme situations, and if you’re confident in your relationship with your child and child-rearing skills, you should have nothing to be concerned with.”

Holloman provided words of support to LGBTQ students.

“To any LGBTQ youth that is watching this right now, I am saying to you, as the aunt of a trans person, I will fight for you,” she said as her time ended.

Kirstyn Oneill, who saw the previous school board meeting at home, said she couldn’t believe what she heard.

“I hear a lot of people saying that they’re nervous that ‘the school is not going to contact me…’ I’m not nervous about that because I’ve raised my children the right way. And I don’t know down the line if they end up trans and I don’t care. And I don’t know if they’re going to end up gay, but I know no matter [what] they bring, they’re going to be able to talk to me. Which means this policy, it doesn’t matter to my kids because they’ll be able to come to me. What matters is the kids who can’t come to their parents and need that protection,” she said. “I would like to remind everybody in this room that these trans children are listening to you talk about them. As you sexualize them and make them sound like sexual deviants…”

She continued, expressing that the policy is worth it if it can save one child’s life. 

“If it can allow one child to see the light at the end of the tunnel, then we have succeeded. If you students who are watching at home, please know for every negative voice here tonight, there are 20 of us cheering you on from the sidelines. You’re going to do incredible things, and I am proud to be a part of your story,” Oneill said.

She finished with a quote by 26-year-old transgender woman Ashley Hallstorm, who committed suicide in 2015. 

“‘From a very young age, I was told that people like me were freaks and abominations. That we’re sick in the head and society hates us. This made me hate who I was. I tried so hard to be just like everyone else, but this isn’t something you can change. I can’t stand to live another day, so I committed suicide,’” read Oneill.

After the hearing, Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III commented that the outcry was not as prominent when the original version was put into place.

“I think the biggest challenge for us when this policy was put into place a couple years ago, somebody may have just thought it was too liberal, we didn’t have all this outcry,” Gordon said.

“So why all of a sudden is all this outcry when we’re trying to make sure we’re preserve student rights by also including them in the discussion in talking to the parents,” Gordon said. “The fear mongering, the offensive statements that are made about LGBTQ+ students is ridiculous, and it’s just another way to try to create some divisiveness, and this narrative that Suffolk Public Schools is doing some type of ideology while all we’re really trying to do is protect all kids, regardless of your gender identity, social economic status, neighborhood you live in, whatever.”

Gordon emphasized that parents’ rights are not being taken away.

“Nothing in the policy takes parents rights away. Nothing. But as I stated, the model policies don’t include student rights, and you have to. You have to.”

Likewise, Board Chair Tyron Riddick commented on the heated meeting.

“There’s an organized effort from within to create havoc in the school system,” Riddick said. “Some board members are leading the charge to create havoc, and they’re passing off a false narrative because they don’t fully understand what they’re doing and how policy and procedure work. When you don’t know, and you speak from a place of unknowing, you can misinform people and have people all riled up for something that’s not really what you’re saying as.”

He continued.

“If you would look at the transgender guidelines, you would see it’s very detailed packed. It’s a lot of requirements that any student who would like to change gender identification would have to go through, and it’s very complex.

Noting that residents and parents are coming to voice their concerns, Riddick expressed his desire to hear more from parents.

“I’m not dismissing the citizens because I am hearing their concerns, but I would like to hear more from parents who have their children here. What are your issues? Because unlike private school, I can’t deny you based off your orientation or your ideology or religion. And because we have a lot of board members who don’t have experience in a public school setting, you can’t bring private school operations to a public school setting,” he said. “The federal government made the mandate, so who do you follow? State or federal?”

Finally, he expressed the most disheartening aspect for him.

“The major disheartening part for me, is to watch board members weaponize a very delicate topic that affects real people in real-time and have no regard for how the student feels under a false banner of protecting parents rights. But if you would read the policy, you would get a better understanding,” Riddick said.

For more information, go to spsk12.net/domain/445 or spsk12.net/domain/101.