[Ed. — This originally ran in print on Friday, Dec. 9. It has been updated to reflect the rescheduled event and a comment made in a column published after this story went to press.]
COURTHOUSE – In December, the city schools this month postponed a voluntary, student-organized assembly meant to discuss issues such as bullying that disproportionately affects lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning youth.
The event at the high school was rescheduled as an evening assembly at 6:30 p.m., Monday, Jan. 30, and it will be open to the public, according to a statement released by the division.
Doors open for “Love Is Love,” as the event is called, at 5:30 p.m., and organizers encouraged people to show up early due to anticipated support for the rescheduled event.
Additionally, Cox High School scheduled a school assembly about diversity that was to include the Gay-Straight Alliance, other student groups and representatives of community groups.
The change in plans last month that led to this happened on a Sunday, one day before the original event was to have taken place. The timing of the decision, said to address a policy issue involving what clubs can do within instructional hours, drew criticism and concern about the message the response sent.
The assembly was also meant to talk about how students can interact with each other in constructive ways following an incident of anti-gay bullying against a student at Cox shortly after the school year began, according to people who were planning to attend the event.
The decision followed a media report that, in part, characterized the event organized by the Gay-Straight Alliance at Cox High School as a “gay pride” assembly. Some people who supported the assembly have called that a misrepresentation of the event.
The schools division has faced criticism and questions, though the event this past week was rescheduled. On Tuesday, Dec. 6, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia requested records related to assemblies at city high schools.
“We want to look at the school division’s practices under the assemblies policy to see whether there is any indication that this event was treated differently because of either its sponsorship or content,” Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the group, said in a statement.
Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence addressed the issue during the school board meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 6.
He said the decision to reschedule the event had to do with following federal law regarding events during instructional time. He also said the conversation students meant to have was valuable.
School Board Chairperson Dan Edwards on Monday, Dec. 5, wrote in a statement that the board had neither met to discuss the assembly nor directed any decisions by the school administration or the high school’s principal. Edwards wrote that the decision was not made to “silence” students but to “bring more people into this conversation.”
Victoria Manning, who last month had been elected to an at-large seat on the school board but not yet taken office, expressed concerns following a report about the assembly by The Virginian-Pilot.
On the evening of Saturday, Nov. 3, Manning sent an email to Edwards. She objected to an assembly organized by a club being held during instructional hours. Manning wrote that she had been contacted by some parents who didn’t know about it before The Pilot wrote a story. The Independent News received a copy of Manning and Edwards’ email exchange in response to a request for the records.
“How can parents opt-out their students if they have not been informed of the event?” Manning wrote. Via email, Edwards responded that board members were becoming aware of the assembly, and he wrote that he would keep Manning in the loop when there was feedback from the administration.
“Additionally, this is a controversial subject, and I do not believe it is appropriate to hold a gay pride event during instructional time,” Manning wrote. “I fully support the gay club holding meetings after school but not during instructional time.”
The Gay-Straight Alliance is not restricted to gay people. Members of groups may be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer or questioning (LGBTQ), or they may be straight “allies,” according to the GSA Network, a California-based nonprofit that provides training and resources to groups in schools and colleges.
Wesley McKee, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Cox High School and a senior at the school, addressed “a lot of misinformation” about the assembly and the club in a statement released via the school division.
“Since I joined the Gay-Straight Alliance junior year, I have been met with mixed responses,” McKee wrote. “When I told my parents, they were confused about my participation in the club, thinking that the group was exclusively for those in the LGBTQ community. To quickly clear up those questions – no, you do not need to be a specific orientation or have to share your sexuality to be a member of the club.”
Reached by phone last month, Manning declined to answer questions but sent a statement to The Independent News. She also posted the statement to social media, noting misleading or incomplete information in press accounts. She wrote:
“As a school board member-elect, I have a zero tolerance of bullying or discrimination of students based on their race, religion, sexual preference, or any other factors. Furthermore, I fully support the rights of all students and citizens of Virginia Beach, and it is critical that the policies and regulations of Virginia Beach schools be fairly and equally applied.”
In a column published later by The Virginian Pilot, Manning added: “I was not implying that gay people are controversial themselves. I was stating that the topic and the fact that it would be held during instructional time would cause controversy.”
On Sunday, Dec. 4 – a day before the assembly – the school administration announced the event was postponed to “involve a variety of student and community groups interested in being part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance of all people.” It also said it was a mistake to schedule the assembly within instructional hours, seemingly addressing the policy concern raised by Manning.
The decision to postpone the event received more coverage than the event itself. In turn, some of the people who were to be involved took issue with that coverage and generalizations about what students meant to do.
“Please stop reporting that the Cox High School Gay-Straight Alliance assembly in Virginia Beach was to be a pride assembly,” Carl Johansen, a member of the board for Hampton Roads Pride, wrote in a social media post. He wrote the assembly “was planned as an instructional/education program to help foster better relations between the students and educate on anti-bullying of the LGBTQ students.”
Michael Berlucchi, president of Hampton Roads Pride, was invited to speak during the event. He planned to discuss anti-bullying and said that students wanted to respond to a bullying incident at Cox High School. He said he was troubled by one implication of the administration’s response: though the schools defended the decision as one that seeks inclusion, a student-led effort effectively was silenced. “I think that reinforces existing stereotypes of the LGBT community,” Berlucchi said, “and I think it further marginalizes an already vulnerable student population.”
School Board Member Joel McDonald, who had been invited to the assembly, said Gay-Straight Alliance organizations in schools can support and help young people who may be coming to terms with their identities or dealing with the aftermath of coming out.
The groups create “more-welcoming, safer environments not just for (LGBTQ) students but for all students,” he said during an interview.
McDonald said the assembly was not meant to change individual beliefs.
“Those who didn’t want to part of the conversation didn’t have to be,” he said.
“My concern now is the kids who put in the work only to have it … postponed,” McDonald said. He added that Virginia Beach schools have made an effort to combat bullying, and he noted there is real documentation that LGBTQ students face harassment and violence at far greater rates than their straight peers.
This year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, commonly known by the acronym CDC, released the first study about lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in ninth through 12th grade. Using 2015 data, the study found those students are far more likely to experience sexual and physical violence.
Lesbian, gay and bisexual students are nearly twice as likely than straight peers to experience bullying either online or at school, the report found.
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