It's a year of anti-incumbency. All across the nation, conservatives and Tea Partiers are pushing to oust any and all incumbents who haven't stuck to their hard-core anti-establishment, anti-immigrant, anti-working class, anti-gay, anti-[fill in the blank] agenda.
Yet, in Winston-Salem, N.C., there's a different kind of anti-incumbent fever sweeping through the races for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.
At my site, I've documented over-and-over, time-and-time again the outrageous anti-gay zealotry and bigotry exhibited by members of this board. As an alumnus of their district (RJRHS '04), I know first-hand the effects of this board's inaction. In high school, I joined with local advocates in attempting to persuade these people to do something about the rampant anti-gay harassment and bullying in their schools. Their response was nothing short of jaw-dropping: board members either treated us with silence and a cold shoulder, or others chose to make purely hateful, anti-gay comments all of which are recorded and documented by area media. Pam and her host of Blend baristas have also become attuned to not only the words, actions and beliefs of America's religious right, but also of those in this state and in Winston-Salem.
The board of education there is overwhelmingly composed of incumbents who've had their seats for almost a decade or longer. In the same amount of time, local advocates' pushes to get the board to do anything at all to protect LGBT students went no where. And, after all that time, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education was ultimately forced to protect LGBT students when the state legislature passed the School Violence Prevention Act in 2009. Yet, board members there continue to ignore real problems. They might have an inclusive policy, but that doesn't mean its being enforced.
Longtime advocate Janet Joyner, a former five-year member of the State Department of Education's Safe Schools Advisory Board, is circulating an in-depth history of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education's anti-LGBT actions. The document, which you can read after the jump, is extraordinary. That any school official, elected or otherwise, would go to such amazing lengths not to protect students boggles the mind and chills to the bone.
The board of education is being reelected, finally, on non-partisan tickets. Joyner and a host of other advocates are hoping the non-partisan races will give them a chance to defeat longtime, anti-LGBT incumbents.
I encourage you click on past the jump or head to InterstateQ.com and read Joyner's history below. It's a shocker, and all the proof anyone needs to vote against every incumbent on this board of education on Tuesday.
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An Open Letter Concerning School Board Elections
by Janet Joyner
This first non-partisan slate of School Board candidates includes a number of challengers to current incumbents. If you believe incumbents should be judged on their record, the following might be of interest to you. I offer it fully aware of its narrow focus: the incumbents’ response to formal complaints, beginning in 1999, that the District’s anti-bullying policies were inadequate because they were silent on what had become the most common excuse for bullying--the victim’s perceived sexual orientation. Local citizens’ concerns gave rise to a campaign that peaked locally in 2002-2003, reaching the level of the State Board of Education in 2004 and the NC General Assembly in 2009.
All of the current School Board incumbents, with the exception of Elizabeth Motsinger,
(Brown, Collins, Goins, Lambeth, Johnson, Metcalf, Parker, Tackabery) were members of the board by 2003. I believe that the record of statements, votes, actions and reactions of the incumbents on that issue does provide evidence about at least one important qualification for serving on the School Board: a commitment to providing the safest possible environment for any child who is legally required to attend schools under their jurisdiction.
Of the incumbents from 2002-2003, the era of the local policy reform campaign, none voted to allow consideration of policy reform, and only Geneva Brown voted to hear what parents and students were saying on the issue of gay harassment and bullying.
With no credible support from the school system, parents sought assistance, in 1997, from PFLAG Winston-Salem, which began a weekly support group for LGBT youth called Youth-FLAG. The local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship provided a meeting space and many of the volunteers who would form the nucleus of that group’s Board of Directors. PFLAG W-S also founded an advocacy organization called SAFE, whose main purpose was to educate teachers about how harassment impacts gay youth. After two years, SAFE decided, in 1999, to ally with GLSEN, a national education organization that focuses on safety issues for gay students.
In May of 1999, Superintendent Martin declined to meet with several parents of stigmatized gay students. Instead, he suggested that they meet with the system’s School Safety Office, Ron Pannell. Mr. Pannell, however, indicated that he had little contact with faculty, because his primary job was security of buildings and grounds.
In 2002, GLSEN W-S spearheaded a request to School Board Chairman Lambeth, in accordance with published procedures, for admission to the agenda of its February 11, 2002, Board meeting, for consideration of a policy reform which would specifically address discrimination against and harassment of gay students. As Chair of the local GLSEN chapter, I wrote the letter of request, dated February 5, 2002, and hand-delivered this letter and a copy to Dr. Martin’s office on that day. In the letter, I argued that well-documented professional complacency or permissiveness in the face of anti-LGBT conduct evidenced that our system’s harassment policy by itself was ineffective, that discrimination and harassment were mutually interdependent, and that others in NC had already secured more successful fundamental protections against these by addressing sanctions against both discrimination and harassment in a single policy. I cited the Chapel Hill-Carrboro system and included a copy of their policy. I requested that our petition and arguments be admitted to the agenda of the February 11, 2002, meeting of the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Board of Education, and that the Board “authorize appropriate school climate surveys at every level.”
GLSEN Winston-Salem received no formal response from Lambeth or the Board. Instead, GLSEN learned via a WFDD report that the Board would not consider its requests.
From the beginning, in a statement that aired on WFDD radio, Supt. Donald Martin framed any attempt to explicitly sanction discrimination against and harassment of gay students as a religious rather than a safety issue. Larry Schooler, of WFDD, questioned Martin about GLSEN’s request to reform the school system’s non-discrimination policy.
- Schooler: “But he (Martin) says amending the non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation would undoubtedly prompt a discussion that would include Biblical references and that, he says, is a cause for concern.”
Martin: “We are certainly, as a school district, interested in protecting …every student and employee..from any type of harassment, abuse, and..to bring in these…almost religious overtones…to..um..particular sexual orientations… is probably not a dialogue that I sense…from a school Board and from an organization..that we need to be prompting a lot of that kind of debate.” WFDD, Feb. 7, 2002.
GLSEN and reform advocates attended the meeting and reiterated their two requests during the public comment period. A committee of the W-SFC school administrators recommended no change to the non-discrimination policy. The Board accepted unanimously. Dierdre Fernandes was the Education reporter for the W-S Journal who attended the Feb. 11, 2002 Board meeting. She reported having heard remarks by Board member Jeannie Metcalf to Supt. Martin, which Metcalf later denied, but which would remain the subject, a year later, of a Journal editorial.
- “It’s tempting to call Jeannie Metcalf the Trent Lott of the city-county school board. …Metcalf was overheard telling Superintendent Don Martin, after the meeting (Feb.11, 2002), ‘I think homosexuality is a sin. If they want to make fun of them, I don’t have a problem with it.’” Winston-Salem Journal, Feb.8, 2003, A12
At the Board meeting on Feb. 11, 2002, neither the Board or school officials responded to GLSEN’s reiterated request for annual school climate surveys, but Journal reporter Dawn Ziegenbalg, interning to replace Fernandes on the education beat, heard the request and questioned Lambeth and Supt. Martin.
- “Lambeth and Superintendent Don Martin say that it may be possible to include those kinds of questions on a general school-climate survey given to students.” Winston-Salem Journal, Feb. 15, 2002, B3.
GLSEN and reform proponents returned to the Board on February 25, 2002, to reiterate their request for annual school climate surveys. There ensued a year of meetings with school officials concerning the number and wording of survey questions that would seek to determine exactly what comments students hear on campus. The school system’s representative, Dr. Fleetwood, finally agreed to 15 questions, 5 on race, 5 on sexual orientation, and 5 on gender for internal school review. Fleetwood told GLSEN that those questions had been accepted by the school’s internal committees and the parent’s committee. GLSEN subsequently learned from The Journal that Martin, or someone on his staff, had eliminated those 15 questions and substituted 2 others. Even those two questions, however, would not be allowed on the student surveys, although they were permitted on the parent survey.
Reporter Deirdre Fernandes recorded what happened in some detail:
- “The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County’s School board’s decision this week to remove a set of questions about discrimination against gays and lesbians from a systemwide survey (for 12th and 8th grades) has done little to quell the debate about how schools deal with homosexual youth. … The questions at the center of the debate ask: ‘How often have you heard students put down or make negative comments directed toward homosexuals at school this year?’ and ‘How many teachers or staff members have you heard make negative comments directed toward homosexuals at school this year?’…The board voted 7-2 to remove the questions. … Board members Geneva Brown and Lynn Thrower said that the survey should have included questions about slurs against gays and lesbians, which may be more of a problem than school officials realize. … Board members Donny Lambeth and Jill Tackabery said they thought the school has more important issues to deal with, such as the budget, or that a general question about bullying was enough. … At least two board members, Jeannie Metcalf and (Buddy) Collins have said publicly that they think homosexuality is wrong. … Metcalf was quoted last week in the Winston-Salem Journal as saying that she thought homosexuality is a sin and she didn’t care if gay students were teased. Last week, Metcalf said she couldn’t recall whether she said the second part of her statement, but later denied saying it. Her remarks have raised some concerns, as has an e-mail message that is circulating between Metcalf and Merideth McLeod of Winston-Salem. In the email obtained by the Winston-Salem Journal, Metcalf reiterates her belief that homosexuality is a sin: ‘And believe me, I know we all sin but what other sin can you think of that has been so whitewashed?’ Metcalf wrote: ‘Let’s have murder-pride marches, rape-pride marches, etc. I’m sorry if that offends you, but that’s what I believe.’ Metcalf said the e-mail had nothing to do with the survey and that she was comparing homosexuality with other sins and could have easily said, ‘lie-pride march and covet-pride march.’ … But the school system’s decision to exclude questions from the survey may send the wrong message, said (Katy) Harriger of the Community Alliance (for Education). … ’I don’t understand what they’re afraid of,’ she said. ‘The perception is that gay students aren’t being heard.’ … ” “Debate over gay students persists despite survey change: Elimination of questions about slurs against gays shifts focus to school board,” Winston-Salem Journal, February 13, 2003, A1.
In the same issue of The Journal, Pheobe Zerwick provided more information about the email.
- “…Here’s the beginning of Metcalf’s email. She wrote it in response to a woman who criticized her for telling Superintendent Don Martin, in a conversation heard by a reporter, that homosexuals are sinners. … ‘I told him we shouldn’t be making concessions to homosexuals because it is clearly portrayed in the Bible as sin,’ Metcalf said. …” “Respect: Attitudes can’t get in way of duty.” Winston-Salem Journal, Feb. 13, 2003, B1.
The article includes reactions from other Board members:
- “… ‘I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that you have allowed your staff to interact with representatives of GLSEN in connection with the survey you presented last night,’ board member Buddy Collins wrote Martin in an email last week. Martin responded that although he supported putting the gay-harassment question to the eighth-and 12th graders, he wouldn’t do much else. …’Surely you know that I have a very low tolerance of GLSEN,’ Martin replied. ‘I can guarantee that regardless of the survey, I will NEVER recommend or support in any way changing our policies or introducing ANY curriculum they endorse.’… The school board voted 7-2 on Monday night to drop those questions.”
Of the current incumbents who were on the School Board in 2003, only Geneva Brown cast a vote in favor of gathering the pertinent data from students. Teachers who commented publicly supported the importance of data from students.
- “Very few days go by when I don’t witness some form of teasing or harassment between students. … Further, I can say without hesitation that the accusation of homosexuality is not only one of the most frequent forms of such teasing, but also the most inflammatory and most likely to incite a negative or even violent reaction. The board’s reluctance to allow the student-parent survey to address this issue seems based on the opinion of several of its members that homosexuality is a sin. ... Clearly, the issue presented to the board was one of harassment, not one of sexuality, but unfortunately, the board, caught up in its own biases, was unable to see the forest for the trees. Regardless of how one views homosexuality, the fact remains that this type of harassment exists in our school system…The failure of the board to allow students and parents to comment on its existence and, therefore, provide administrators and teachers with the data needed to confront such problems, if they do in fact exist in their schools, is simply irresponsible.” Jennifer Jones, an 8th grade English teacher at Hanes Middle School, “Second Opinion,” Winston-Salem Journal, Feb 19, 2003, A11.
Thus, excepting Geneva Brown, all current incumbents who were on the Board in 2003 chose not to seek what students were hearing at school or what they had to say about harassment.
While the board did eliminate the 2 substitute questions from the student surveys, they did not drop them from the surveys that went to parents. That survey takes place annually in February, with results customarily tabulated by the end of April. In this case, the school system failed to release the results. On July 7, 2003, a school staff member gave me a print-out of an email in which Martin acknowledges that the results from the parents’ version of the survey reveals that bullying levels were very high. He invites school staff to attend a meeting to hear views that are different from GLSEN’s.
- Martins’ memo says, in part: “This Friday, July 11, Steve Whitton, former city alderman, has arranged for a special presentation by Joanne Highley who directs the L.I.F.E. Ministry in New Your (sic) -she has worked with a number of practicing homosexuals about returning to a heterosexual lifestyle. She expresses a different view than GLSEN. She will be speaking from 9:00 to 11:00…at …First Presbyterian Church… Board members have been invited and I plan on attending. I would like to encourage you to come hear about her program and her views on a subject that we will be discussing more this year- the “bullying” results on the student and parent surveys are very high and we will need to respond. I would especially like to encourage high school principals to invite your guidance director to attend. Of course, any other counselors- at any level- would be welcome. …”
The public was not allowed to attend the presentation, but a Journal reporter scooped the closed Gay Therapy Talk at First Presbyterian Church, and Highley did not escape an interview.
- Highley was quoted as saying, “‘We believe homosexuality is a Satanic counterfeit to God’s created design’” and “‘Homosexuals can become heterosexuals.’”) “Educators given a ‘different view’ on gays,” Winston-Salem Journal, July 12, 2003, A1.
Letters to the Editor indicated a large outcry over the Superintendent’s response to the bullying problem. The point was made most succinctly by Frank Benedetti:
- “For our superintendent to address that (bullying) by promoting a meeting held by someone without any credentials, and whose philosophy is discredited by all the major scientific groups, is astounding. It makes as much sense as inviting someone from the World Church of the Creator, who believes that non-whites are ‘mud people,’ to present a ‘different view’ of racism.” Winston-Salem Journal, July 21, 2003, A6.
From the outset, Dr. Martin seemed to frame opposition to any survey or rule that would identify gay students as targets of harassment as a means of keeping religious issues from intruding into school affairs. Some Board members openly based their opposition on their religious principles. Dr. Martin’s endorsement, however, of Joanne Highley’s religiously inspired Gay Therapy Talk is perhaps more indicative of his intent and is not the only evidence that religion is welcome in the schools if it meets with the approval of Board members.
- “Principals in some school systems have questioned the ministry and kept its workers out of their cafeterias. Smith’s (Harold Smith, then Principal at Parkland High School) concern with Young Life was just the opposite: He wanted them to visit at lunchtime. …’I think Christ needs to be spread among some kids,’ said Victor Johnson, a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.” John Railey, “Young Life Gets Warm Welcome at Local Schools,” John Railey, Winston-Salem Journal, March 23, 2002. A 1
In 2009, the State mandated local anti-bullying policies that specifically enumerate gay students as among the likely victims. In contrast to the local Board, the State of North Carolina regards this issue as a matter of public safety, not religious debate. With the exception of Geneva Brown and Elisabeth Motsinger, the current incumbents attempted to cover-up rather than address the problem. I hope that you will keep this in mind as you review the candidates running for School Board and that you will be sure to vote on November 2, 2010.