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Moments of conflict at school board protest over LGBTQ+ books | #schoolsaftey

The protests Tuesday afternoon at Montgomery County Public Schools’ board meeting laid bare the varying opinions of protesters who are united in their hopes that the county will grant an opt-out option for LGBTQ+ inclusive books. Even if the school district grants it, some attendees at a large protest Tuesday afternoon suggest this may only be the beginning of their concerns when it comes to inclusive school policies.

“I want my kids to have their rights protected, not indoctrinated with things me and my family don’t believe,” said protester Hibret Feyssa. “I came here to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Feyssa said she’s the parent of two MCPS students, one in middle school and one in elementary. “They’re both boys. I want them to grow up as boys,” she said. “Just let our kids grow as they are.”

She said if books with LGBTQ+ characters are read in schools, teachers should incorporate “the foundation of Christianity” into the class discussion. She said her sons are seen as “religious fanatics” when they express their religious beliefs at school.

Tuesday’s protest outside school board headquarters—the second this month—was organized by the Family Rights for Religious Freedom and the Coalition for Virtue, both recently-founded groups with support from the Center for American-Islamic Relations and Montgomery County Muslim Council. Members of the Montgomery County and Howard County chapters of Moms for Liberty, a designated hate group per the Southern Poverty Law Center, also joined the crowd.

Several attendees emphasized a desire to be inclusive of all students and told MoCo360 their concern with the curriculum—which recently sparked a federal lawsuit—does not center on LGBTQ+ exclusion or bigotry.

“We love everybody—we want everybody to feel seen, safe and heard,” said Billy Moses, an Ethiopian parent of three MCPS elementary students. “But we don’t want children to be forced to sit through things they don’t want to. Immigrants don’t understand what these [books] are—they see this as their rights being violated.”

Moses said the storybooks run contrary to some families’ religious beliefs and create “culture shock.”

A protester waves a large white flag reading “Jesus” in bold letters beneath a red cross, followed by the words “the way – truth – life.” Credit: Em Espey

A petition circulating online in support of the school district’s current policy on LGBTQ+ storybooks has amassed over 2,500 signatures as of Wednesday, according to its cocreator Laura Stewart, a PTSA leader. The petition first went public on June 17, and Stewart said over 90% of signees are Montgomery County residents.

Around a dozen community members who support MCPS’ inclusive policies stood farther back from the crowd. Stewart told MoCo360 that she and other local advocates discouraged a counterprotest, seeking to avoid conflict or escalation.

Christina Clenza, parent of an MCPS student, stood in support of LGBTQ+ students and families at the protest.

“It’s impossible to opt out of student life,” Clenza said. “These kids have peers who might be trans or nonbinary. And of course, they need be called by appropriate names, pronouns, et cetera—because we really value inclusiveness in Montgomery County.”

Eleanor Smedberg is a Montgomery College student and MCPS graduate. They said they walked by the protest while on campus without knowing the context and decided to join Clenza and others in demonstrating support for LGBTQ+ inclusion in schools. Smedberg said they have younger siblings who are also MCPS students.

“I think that it’s not an issue of religious freedom to opt your kids out of the stories,” they said. “It’s an issue of intolerance. They’re trying to teach their kids that [LGBTQ+] people aren’t real—that they don’t deserve a place in our stories. And that can breed a lot of negativity later on in life.”

MCPS parent Thed Bekele told MoCo360 he doesn’t have a problem with students being taught to respect each other’s chosen names and pronouns. When asked for his opinion on the district’s policy allowing transgender students to use whichever bathroom matches their gender, he responded:

“There is a problem. […] They can do whatever they want to do, but don’t force us to accept you.”

Gesturing to the chanting crowd behind him, Bekele said that “nobody here is transphobic.”

Kate Epstein, mother of an LGBTQ+ student, said she’s concerned allowing an opt-out for LGBTQ+ inclusive content could create a slippery slope with families demanding opt-outs from other content.

“You don’t get to pick and choose based on your religious beliefs which truths are taught to your child,” Epstein said “What’s next, Holocaust denial? Someone could say, ‘I don’t believe in the Holocaust; my child should get to opt out.’ But that’s not how we run our schools.”  

A fellow MCPS parent named Tee—who requested her last name not be published for privacy reasons—said she also had concerns about transgender students using public school bathrooms.

“I have a problem with that. I don’t want them to mix in with the other girls if they feel that way,” she said of female transgender students. “I don’t care who they love or what they do in their own house. That’s not my problem.”

Rising Wootton High senior Jax Kobey, 17, attended the rally with Rainbow Defense Coalition members in support of current MCPS policy. At one point the event leaders allowed Kobey, who is nonbinary, the opportunity to take the megaphone and share their thoughts with attendees.

Kobey said the loudspeaker was snatched away from them halfway through their speech, and someone called them a fraud as a man pulled them out of the crowd by the wrist. Kobey shared their protest experiences with the school board in an email later that day.

In-person public access to the meeting itself was limited by MCPS due to the high volume of anticipated interest. Board meetings are always livestreamed on both the MCPS YouTube channel and website. School staff decided to allow five people from the rally and five pro-curriculum advocates through the doors—a decision that sparked outrage from rallygoers, who tried to strong-arm their way into the building.

“People were yelling and screaming,” said Kobey, who filmed the moment before they were allowed inside. “All five of us linked elbows to not get separated. I definitely was more concerned for my safety in that moment than the first time the crowd had been forceful with me.”

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) regional leader David Fishback also witnessed the brief scuffle. He said the school district’s last-minute change of policy was ill-advised and caused avoidable drama.

“Sometimes the road to hell is paved in good intentions,” he said. “It wasn’t an error of anything malicious—it was just an unfortunate misunderstanding. When tensions are high, people can be unnecessarily offended.”

During the board meeting’s public comment period, most of the testimony revolved around the LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum. Montgomery County Education Association President Jennifer Martin said the teachers’ union opposed an opt-out, citing data from a recent study from the Trevor Project on suicidality rates among transgender youth. Students who feel affirmed in their gender identity at school experience less suicidal ideation, the study found.

Some parents’ testimony emphasized the role of an inclusive curriculum in combatting the “daily harassment and bullying” they said their LGBTQ+ students face at school, and some expressed worry that an opt-out could open the door to “even more extreme proposals.” Other parents’ testimony called the inclusive books “more pornography than science” and expressed fear that reading the books could result in “conflict and anxiety” for young students.

School board members did not comment on the testimony presented. The district itself has consistently declined to provide comment on the curriculum debate, citing the pending litigation as a prohibiting factor.

Kobey said while they were discouraged by the moments of conflict they experienced with protesters Tuesday, they hope community members continue to seek civil dialogue with a goal to find greater empathy for each other.

“If any people want to dialogue with me, I’m very much open to that,” Kobey said. “Nothing gets solved by screaming and yelling at each other.”

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