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Residents left fuming, fearful after contentious Loudoun County school board meeting

The Loudoun County Public Schools board cut short the public comment section of a school board meeting on June 22 after attendees became unruly. (Video: Loudoun County School Board)
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The repercussions are still being felt from a contentious Loudoun County school board meeting that has left some residents fuming and others fearful on both sides of a bitter debate.

Anger and frustration boiled over at the Tuesday meeting where a full house of parents, students and other residents grew increasingly rancorous during a public comment session on the district’s transgender rights policy and racial equity plans. The tense gathering was marked by outbursts, insults and recriminations before a unanimous vote by the school board halted the proceedings and police cleared the hall.

One person was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct. Another was issued a summons for trespassing.

The contentious evening was the latest squall in an ongoing culture war that has festered in the district’s school system. Speakers at the board meeting came eager to share their feelings about the twin controversies that are now consuming the school system — critical race theory and the treatment of transgender students.

Julia Holcomb was one of a number of attendees who spoke in favor of the board’s draft proposals, including requiring teachers to address transgender students by their names and pronouns and granting transgender students access to facilities and activities that match their gender identity.

“This isn’t complicated. People are trying to make it complicated,” Holcomb said. “We are here to advocate for children. All children. Including LGBTQ children and children of color. . . . We support the school board in its efforts to support every single one of the children of Loudoun County. That’s not partisan. That’s not complicated.”

School districts nationwide — often inspired by the protests against systemic racism that unfolded after the killing of George Floyd — have begun pursuing changes, such as updated curriculums and staff training, meant to make educators and students aware of the hurdles that America’s history and present-day institutions place in the way of people of color.

But where proponents see attempts to ensure equity in education, critics see the indoctrination of children with critical race theory. The theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is woven into the nation’s past and present. Very few if any K-12 school systems are teaching students critical race theory, which is typically viewed as college-level material.

As schools expand racial equity work, conservatives see a new threat in critical race theory

Diane DiStefano, a parent of two former Loudoun students and grandmother of two current students in the district, said she was grateful to live in a country that could acknowledge its past wrongs and thanked the board “for having the courage to continue the righteous pursuit of equity and justice so that all students can thrive.”

But many other speakers expressed vehement opposition to the proposed policies.

“Students and teachers, you cannot be forced to address another person by a pronoun or other sex-specific way that you do not believe is accurate. That is compelled speech and it violates the First Amendment,” said Laurie Avila, a parent of students in the district.

Some speakers called for the board members to resign or face a recall effort. One speaker said the policies were part of a “propaganda” effort and compared the board’s actions to those of Communist China. Another compared the policies to those enacted by Nazi Germany.

More than 250 people had signed up to comment, board chair Brenda Sheridan said at the beginning of the session. The school board began its meeting two hours early to allow everyone to talk.

But not everyone would have their say.

“Shortly after public comment began Tuesday, the audience heckled a speaker and began cheering and waving placards. Chair Sheridan warned the audience that the board would recess if there was another outburst,” schools spokesman Wayde Byard said in an email. “There was another outburst and the board left the dais. When the board returned, Chair Sheridan said another outburst would lead to the School Board motioning to end public comment.”

A little over an hour into the public comment period, and after the repeated admonitions, former Virginia state senator Dick Black approached the microphone to attack the board’s positions.

“It’s absurd and immoral for teachers to call boys girls and girls boys,” he said, as many in the audience stood and waved placards in affirmation. “This board has a dark history of suppressing free speech.”

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As Black’s minute expired and his microphone was cut off, many in the room cheered and applauded his statement. At that, the school board voted unanimously to halt comments and address other agenda items in a closed session. That decision sparked more anger at the board and between the factions in the building and led Loudoun Schools Superintendent Scott A. Ziegler to delare the event an unlawful assembly and direct people to leave.

Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, said “several attendees refused to leave,” and one man was issued a summons for trespassing. A second man “displayed aggressive behavior towards another attendee,” Troxell said, then became disorderly with a deputy and “physically resisted arrest.” The man was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, Troxell said.

Ian Prior, executive director of Fight for Schools, an organization that is pushing for the recall of six Loudoun school board members and opposes its proposed policies on teaching racial equity, said the board’s decision to cut off public comment was wrong.

“It’s our perspective that applause is a form of expression that’s protected by the First Amendment,” he said.

Prior said his organization feels the school board has been unresponsive to those parents who don’t like the direction in which the board is taking the district.

“Our top-line message with regard to the school board is at multiple levels, a failure to respond to parents, to listen to parents, to give parents a seat at the table as to how their kids are educated when they walk through those doors every morning,” he said.

Supporters of the district’s proposed policies say they are worried by the tone and tenor of Tuesday’s meeting and the intense opposition they encountered.

Robert Norris Rigby, a Fairfax County Public Schools teacher and longtime LGBTQ advocate in Northern Virginia, said LGBTQ people he knows are terrified by what happened in Loudoun on Tuesday. Rigby, who is co-president of FCPS Pride, said people are watching videos of the Loudoun meeting and reading news coverage. “I think they were shocked by how violent the mob was,” he said. “It does feel like Loudoun is unsafe, and it makes people elsewhere worry about whether this is coming to us.”

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