The Asheville City Board of Education continues to rewrite its policies in an effort to limit what board members say would be undue harm to LGBTQ+ students caused by the state Parents’ Bill of Rights law passed last year.
For more than three hours during its board retreat Jan. 18, the board went line by line through the seven policies affected by law, adjusting language as they went.
“Understanding that the law as written will impact the LGBTQ+ community so deeply, we as a board want to be so deliberate about the language so as to limit its harm as much as possible,” said board Chair George Sieburg after the meeting.
Throughout, board attorney Chris Campbell and board members commented on the difficulty of crafting a policy in response to a law they say is in direct conflict with their own mission.
“Ten, 15, 20, 25 years ago laws were much more straightforward in terms of practical issues, and not values [and] societal issues,” acknowledged Campbell before the board dug into the policies. “Unfortunately, social wars are playing out in public schools. … I don’t think it’s inappropriate to say that’s unfortunate.”
The board referenced recommendations by the N.C. School Boards Association as well as changes already approved by Durham Public Schools and Buncombe County Schools while making their suggestions to Campbell.
In some cases, the board simply referred to language that exists elsewhere in its policies, rather than using what the law suggested.
Board member Rebecca Strimer said the law, for the most part, takes policies that already exist in some way and grandstands about them.
“They are not bestowing upon parents rights that they didn’t already have,” she said. “I would love to send the message to our community that when we find problematic language, that we respond with existing solid procedures that protect students, rather than creating new language that hasn’t existed before.”
The board followed that logic when suggesting edits to the policy with some of the most controversial language, parental involvement.
In one section, that policy requires parents to be notified before students can request that their pronouns be changed to match their identity.
Strimer said this was one of the pieces of the law that she found most harmful, asking students to “live in the shadows” instead of feeling that they can be open with their teachers.
“This is the harm. We’ve distilled it,” she said.
The board elected to change language to simply refer to the law, rather than restate what board member Amy Ray said was harmful language written in the law.
Campbell said he would use the phrase “in accordance with federal and state law and board policies” instead.
They also discussed what could happen if the state law is found to be in violation of federal anti-discrimination law, as has been suggested by the Campaign for Southern Equality in its Title IX complaint against the Buncombe County Board of Education in December.
Ray said that any lawsuit against the district would have to identify specific harm that resulted as a result of the policy; it isn’t enough to just have the policies themselves on the books.
No public comment was scheduled for the meeting, but Sieburg permitted two attendees to speak before the board. Parents Christina Mason and Allison Scott both spoke out against the policies, which they said were discriminatory and ludicrous.
“Shame on us adults for not protecting our children from lawmakers making schools hostile places to be queer or learn about the full spectrum of humanity. All of our children need to hear that we love, accept and celebrate them for who they are,” Mason said.
More public comment will be heard on updates made to the policies at the board’s Feb. 5 work session and Feb. 12 board meeting. The board is expected to pass a final version of the policies Feb. 12.