By Eliza Partika
The Glendale Unified School Board of Education on Tuesday had to briefly interrupt its meeting after shouting erupted among a small group of attendees, inhibiting other public speakers from having their allotted time at the podium.
The Board urged decorum from the group of attendees who have filed into the last two district meetings with signs protesting, among other things, the local adoption of a state policy on how students might seek gender-affirming allowances at school, and in some cases, without parental consent.
The five-minute break was taken to “let things calm down enough in order to continue,” Board President Nayiri Nahabedian said. “We are committed to hearing you and also reading what you write to us, and in order to be able to do that, we have to continue in a calm manner.”
The group of protesters shouted as students attempted to address concerns about hate speech against them at their schools, until Nahabedian intervened to quiet the adults.
Glendale Police Department officers have been present at the recent board meetings, but they will only intervene if necessary to protect the safety of those present, said GUSD Communications Director Kristine Nam.
“We continuously make adjustments to our boardroom protocols as needed to protect the safety of everyone in the room and ensure the business of the meeting can be accomplished with minimal disruption,” she told the News-Press. “We will continue to adjust our procedures around board meetings as needed if disruptions escalate.”
During the public comment, one student struggled to raise her voice over the jeers and shouting.
“First, we need to stop silencing and belittling children and minorities. It is sickening that every single day I have to go to school and be called multiple slurs, and I do not stand alone in this issue,” the student said before the Board.
“Another issue is that we as children have to watch as parents and adults try to strip our rights to safety and comfort in a school setting, such as the right to be referred to [by] our preferred pronouns. You would think that living in Glendale, a community filled with people and groups that have been oppressed and targeted throughout history, would mean that we would be able to support each other and live in harmony with each other. But instead, here we are discussing stripping rights from children.”
Another student spoke about the impact of the incendiary remarks on her and other students’ mental health. “I am here to talk about the hate speech that has been going on in our schools and in GUSD in general. I have been hate-crimed myself and it is not a fun experience for anyone my age or any adult or as a Board member or as a student to experience. It is not a fun time. It should not be tolerated. I think as a community we should come together in a calm manner and report this, as a community, so we can all have our voices heard,” she said.
A parent who spoke at the meeting expressed concern for school security, referencing a February incident at Wilson Middle School where children harmed another student. She argued that the school board should be more proactive in adding a resource officer at every school to protect children from further abuse.
“Maybe when there is a resource officer children will think twice about harming other students,” she said. “Children will feel comfortable and confident knowing there is a resource officer or police officer on their campus.”
Board members addressed the disruptions that occurred earlier in the night during closing reports and correspondence.
“I appreciate the speakers who spoke up against the hate and especially the youth who came forward to speak up and honor the positive things occurring at their school sites. As long as I am sitting on this dais, the hate will not be forgotten and I will continue to address how inappropriate it is. For the people who claim that they support students and they support our youth and that they support our children — some of the youth and children that spoke here tonight were harassed right here in this very room. It deeply impacts our community and it won’t be tolerated and accepted,” Board member Ingrid Gunnell said.
“There are things that happen in our board room but there are so many other [good] things happening at the same time,” said Board member Jennifer Freeman.
In recognizing all the positive things across the district, the Board highlighted the Crescenta Valley High School sports community that was honored this week after teams finished their respective seasons. The Armenian Heritage Month performances at Hoover High School also received glowing praise.
Nahabedian emphasized how important it is to give students environments that value them and show them respect, and expressed a desire to work with parents on their child’s education and experience at school.
“We appreciate it when parents and other caregivers are inquisitive and are engaged with what is going on in their school community, [never mind] the fact that kids do better when their parents are involved with them and their education.”
However, Nahabedian did make clear there are times when counselors, teachers and other staff members need to step in. She provided insight into what is and is not true as it relates to students and their gender identities.
Since 2013, the California Department of Education has mandated that students have a right to ask to be referred to by a name or pronoun that might be different than that on their official record. According to Nahabedian, the California Department of Education places the utmost importance on privacy, and disclosing transgender status of students may violate California’s anti-discrimination law.
“As with all GUSD policies, adherence to state law is what we do. Our policies are aligned with the law and direction by the CDE. Now likewise, state law is very clear that only parents have the right to change a minor student’s name or gender in permanent legal record. Only parents or guardians have a right to do that,” Nahabedian said.
Nahabedian further stated that no student is ever forced to disrobe or change clothes in front of any adult at school, and that private changing rooms are available for any student to use for any reason.
GUSD policy requires a parent or guardian signature before an official name or gender change in the school record.
“We are not alone in these struggles, this is not a GUSD-only situation … these are difficult issues being confronted by districts, by school boards, by state legislatures across the United States, and its’s a tough balancing act,” Nahabedian said. “Our [newest] guidance is issued and then left for districts to implement to the best of our abilities. Our staff advocates for students and their needs.”
Ekchian spoke about continuing to foster a positive culture of learning for students by looking to the districts’ “listening leaders” philosophy that strives to bring adults and children together while acknowledging dissent in a constructive manner.
“If our adults aren’t learning and remaining relevant and learning from one another, then the students are not going to accelerate at the same level that we hope,” Ekchian said.
Listening to students, employees, parents and the community helps to assess and find solutions to myriad concerns, ranging from safety during lunch time and throughout the school day to implementing desired adjustments to block schedules.
The Board continues to work toward implementing more student voice panels, interest groups for students and targeted assistance for English Language Learners and new students.
“I’m very excited to see the seeds of this coming forward,” said Board member Grant Sahakian.
ONLINE PROGRAM MERGES
In another discussion during the evening, students enrolled in GUSD’s Online College and Career Academy, a fully online four-year high school and college readiness program where students have the option to complete general education college courses or a business and marketing certificate, raised concerns about an upcoming merger with Verdugo Academy.
Student Riley Sizan said students were told the program was ending on account of low enrollment. While Nahabedian clarified this is not true, there is still a concern among students that new counselors and teachers are not familiar with students’ specialized academic plans, and that funding for the OCCA program could be ending as soon as June 2023.
“Students can learn at their own pace and the plans are individualized. My goal is to graduate with a marketing certificate and complete some GE courses before college. But to be told that the funding is ending after two years, when we were sold a four-year program, I have so many questions about GUSD’s commitment to OCCA students,” Sizan said.
Ekchian promised to meet with OCCA students and their parents after two more students voiced their concerns.
First published in the May 6 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.