By Eliza Partika
A unanimous vote to proclaim June as LGBTQ+ Pride month in Glendale Unified School District was preempted with violent protests in front of district offices Tuesday regarding gender-affirming policies and sex education curriculum.
The gathering of several hundred supporters and opponents of the GUSD’s policies regarding LGBTQ+ students and sex education curriculum began peacefully, with supporters forming a circle chanting “love not hate” and protesting opponents freely mingling with each other in conversation, but ultimately devolved into pushing, shoving and pepper-spraying among a select group of individuals. Three people were arrested in the melee for various charges, including unlawful use of pepper spray and obstructing officers in the course of duty, according to the Glendale Police Department.
As of press time on Friday, GPD had not responded to News-Press queries as to whether the suspects had been arraigned on charges.
According to Glendale Chief of Police Manuel Cid, “agitators on both sides of the issue” incited violence that disrupted the largely peaceful gathering and caused the Board of Education to cut short public comments and shelter in place.
About 50 police officers gathered at the scene and responded swiftly to altercations, making arrests, restoring order and clearing the parking lot where the protests were held.
Meanwhile, the Board allowed up to 75 people to attend the meeting in person. A long line of people hoping to gain entry to the meeting and make public comments wound outside the building until it began at 5 p.m.
Public comment was recessed for 20 minutes about an hour into the meeting, when an unlawful assembly was called and a dispersal order given outside.
Initially, GUSD’s last Board meeting of the school year was to highlight and honor notable children across the district, but after hearing of potential conflict brewing on social media, children were recommended not to attend the meeting. District employees were advised to work from home starting at 2 p.m.
Superintendent Vivian Ekchian promised to meet each student at their school sites to honor them individually.
Board President Nayiri Nahabedian began public comment by calling for attendees to “engage with one another, even in disagreement, and see each other’s humanity.
“Our public schools exist to prepare our students academically, and to be as successful as we can in that effort, we must also consider who our students are as people and create welcoming and benevolent environments that value and respect every student that sets foot on their campuses,” she said. “Also of critical importance is our desire to work with our families, our parents as partners in their education. It is critical that our parents and other caregivers are inquisitive, curious and engaged with what is going on in our schools. Kids do better when parents are involved with them and in their education.”
The Board voted to extend public comment time, allowing for 70 public speakers, 62 of whom spoke about LGBTQ+-related issues.
Nahabedian asked that speakers listen to each other and exhibit decorum as they heard opinions not shared by others.
“Let’s remember, young people are watching. How we say something is just as important as what we say,” she reminded attendees, “what you say and how you say it impacts young people. It impacts self-value, what they think of themselves and how they treat each other.”
Comments in support of the LGBTQ+ community came from local organizations such as the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center, Southern California Armenian Democrats, GALA LGBTQ Armenian Society, the Armenian American Action Network, the Los Angeles Queer Interfaith Council of Clergy, and officials from around Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Others who spoke were parents and activists.
One parent spoke about a conversation she had with a man she met in line to get into the Board meeting. Despite different viewpoints, the two discussed a scenario where a student could safely “come out” at school and parents could also be given an opportunity to support their child and open doors for more communication.
“I think there are some places where we can find common ground. I met a wonderful man in line — we had absolutely different viewpoints — but we did come together on the idea with regards to the policy,” she said.
Many thanked the School Board for their inclusivity. “I taught my children to always be respectful, courteous, and proud of who they are,” said one woman during her one-minute comment.
One father said his complaints about restroom concerns and security concerns were handled inconsistently by school officials, with them taking security concerns seriously but not the former complaint. “My daughter came home and she was afraid to go to the restroom or change in the lockers, just because she knew another guy could come into the restroom. I went and I spoke with the principal — there was not any kind of policy,” he said.
One woman voiced how saddened she was to not celebrate the children who were scheduled to perform and be honored with awards “because of arguments adults are having about politics.”
Another father-to-be and Glendale resident said, “I’m gay and I’m Armenian. When I adopt a child I want them to be safe going to GUSD schools with two dads.”
Another parent noted: “I have stood on the side thinking our children were safe because, well, this is Glendale. We have allowed hatred, hatred that is clearly against the LGBTQ community. As a parent I’m concerned that people, some of whom don’t seem to have children in this district, have a voice in school matters.”
Other speakers declared they were in favor of representing parents’ rights.
“I’m here on the side of parents who want to keep the focus in schools on academics rather than sexual orientation or on so-called gender identity,” said one woman. “What do [kids who grow up to identify as LGBTQ+] need from education? Do they need to be taught on sexuality, or lessons on being kind? What nonconforming kids need is to be taught math, reading, science, tech and history, like any kid. Stop selling kids short,” she said.
Burbank Mayor Constantine Anthony said “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, people are being propagandized to believe that there is more happening in schools that isn’t. I tell families all the time, this is the same curriculum as last year, same curriculum as the year before. Nothing’s changed. Nothing is happening. It’s all age-appropriate.”
Pastor Aaron Van Voorhis of Central Avenue Church in Glendale wanted board members and the public to know there are a number of churches in Glendale and the Greater Los Angeles Area who support LGBTQ+ communities. “I want to say that we love our lesbian, gay, bi, queer, transgender, nonbinary and intersex neighbors and affirm their rights and status as beloved children of God,” he said. Voorhis, who said he is a 13-year Glendale resident soon to have children of his own in the district, also affirmed the School Board’s resolution to celebrate Pride month: “I’m here to offer my support to the Board and their policies that protect LGBTQ students from bullying and discrimination. We also applaud the school board’s policies that seek to make our schools and communities a safer place for all our children.”
Since concerns about LGBTQ+ policies arose at board meetings in April, Ekchian has released statements correcting misinformation surrounding sex education in the classroom, and has made public a document detailing specifics about how children are taught about diversity, identity and sexual health in school. According to the document, GUSD health instruction “related to teen development and sexual education” is taught in grades 5, 7 and 9, with 5th-graders learning about development and maturation and 7th- and 9th-graders receiving a more in-depth sex education including HIV prevention.
Parents and guardians may review sex education materials for all grades in advance and opt their child out of these lessons if they choose; however, parents are not allowed to opt students out of any lessons referencing LGBTQ+ history, as dictated by the state’s 2011 FAIR Education Act. The document also details the sex education curriculum for each grade.
In May, the district directed that male coaches and teachers do not enter the girls’ locker room or vice versa. No student is ever forced to disrobe or change clothes in front of an adult. Private changing facilities are provided in all locker rooms for students who prefer to use them.
“If we can have mutual respect for our needs and wants, it’s then that we can make a difference in the world. I ask that schools give the choice as to whether students want to participate in an activity or ideology,” said another parent during public comment.
Ekchian issued another statement on Wednesday reiterating the availability of information about school curriculum, and her eagerness to communicate with concerned parents.
“To our parents who have questions or concerns about what is being taught in our schools, please reach out to your principal or our district staff. I am committed to working with parents as partners, and I encourage all parents and other caregivers to be inquisitive and engaged with what is going on in our school community,” said Ekchian, who has begun coffee meetings with parents to create an open space for questions and dialogue.
On Wednesday, Cid emphasized that the protest was mostly peaceful.
“While passionate and boisterous, the protest was largely peaceful, allowing community members to voice their perspectives on issues surrounding the school district,” Cid told City News Service. “Unfortunately, a handful of agitators, on both sides of the issue, arrived at the demonstration with a clear desire to confront and incite violence, ultimately engaging in physical assaults.
“Moving forward, the [GPD] will use all the investigative tools available to us to identify any persons responsible for acts of violence at yesterday’s protest and bring them to justice,” Cid added. “The [GPD] and the Glendale community will continue to honor and protect people’s right to free speech and assembly. However, individuals who wish to incite disorder and violence in our community will not be tolerated and will be dealt with swiftly by our police department.”
In the aftermath of the meeting, the protest was trending across social media and national news outlets, drawing comments from across the country and the reposting of many videos of peaceful interactions as well as escalations.
RESIDENTS, PROTESTERS GATHER TO SPEAK OUT
Grey James, a member of Glendale Out, said the rhetoric among opponents of GUSD Board members is putting young LGBTQ+ students more at risk than ever before.
“This has always been an issue of agenda and using the queer community to further a personal agenda,” he said. “We want to be careful not to make this a queer issue. They’re putting marks on people’s backs, and especially on young queer students’ backs, to further a personal agenda.”
In James’ view, the original demand of GUSD Board opponents — to fire Assistant Superintendent Kelly King — “has become this whole other monster” to the point where they are changing “the messaging to continue to get attention.
“Any response that we give to them is playing a hand in their game. And so we’re like, ‘go do your thing, man.’ Go express that opinion. We’re going to just keep doing our thing as if this doesn’t exist … we’re going to be gay and we’re going to be fabulous. And we’re going to carry on,” James said.
Glendale resident Spencer Carney, an organizer for Glendale Out, said that as a gay child himself, he needed the support and connection from his parents that he got at school. “These parents were talking about transparency with their kids, but they never asked themselves why their kid wasn’t transparent and why their kid didn’t want to share,” he said. “They don’t ask the same questions when their kid is joining the debate club.”
Another parent named Jane, who declined to give her last name for safety reasons, created Soft Power, a knitting collective, to give sewing materials and textured fabrics to increase mental health awareness during moments of heightened emotional stress.
As a parent, Jane said she is disappointed that months of escalations have led to this moment.
“It’s distressing on a personal level. We’ve seen it in the people that we know personally have supported hate, that’s a really hard thing to come to terms with. So I’m trying to have compassion for these people, because they probably grew up in these systems. And they don’t know that things can be different. And education isn’t a threat, information isn’t a threat, and it really should never be a threat. It’s a way to keep kids safe.”
In a video filmed by Twitter user LaSombritaWithNews, several opponents of the school board policies spoke with a person holding and wearing a shirt with pride flags. “It’s always been male and female up until the last 10 years … Nobody’s saying it’s not OK to have two moms, it’s not OK to have two dads, that’s fine, everyone do you. But nobody had a problem with the gays until you let it into the schools,” the person said.
“Everyone has been explaining this to you guys, what this is all about, and you guys still wander around pretending to be clueless,” interjected another man. “This is about children and sexuality not mixing together.”
Elizabeth Vitanza, a GUSD parent, said it was a shame
protests happened the week
many parents attended joyful promotion and graduation ceremonies celebrating the end of the school year.
“Seeing outsiders use trans students, in particular, as a wedge issue to advance their own profiles makes me sad. The 2011 FAIR Act and other education codes and state and federal laws require the inclusion of age-appropriate diverse curriculum in California public schools, and protect students from being harassed or bullied at school on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity, among others. GUSD is not going to break laws because the existence of gay people makes someone uncomfortable. Parents are welcome to home school or choose private school,” Vitanza said.
Rep. Adam Schiff condemned the violence that occurred outside the meeting, tweeting: “These continued acts of violence and hate towards our LGBTQ+ community — especially towards students, parents and teachers — are horrific. All of our children deserve to both feel safe and be safe regardless of who they love or how they identify. We will not go back. We will not apologize for celebrating the strength and the diversity of our LGBTQ+ community.”
Police erected barricades to help with crowd control between the two sides, many of whom were holding signs, waving American flags and Pride flags. Some yelled “Leave our kids alone!” while others chanted “Protect trans kids, protect queer kids.”
After bouts of violence erupted around 6 p.m., additional police forces were called to ensure “the safety of the Glendale community was not compromised.”
Police issued a shelter in place order to attendees inside the GUSD Board meeting room. At one point, the lights in the lobby were shut off because protesters were filming the people inside. A yellow banner barrier was erected across the door as officers attempted to clear the parking lot and Jackson Street.
BOARD MEMBERS CONGRATULATE STUDENTS
At the end of an otherwise routine Board meeting that discussed PTA, student and district end-of-the-year updates and achievements, Ekchian, Nahabedian and Board members commented on the gatherings outside.
“It’s hard not to be distracted by what’s happening outside our doors. But we don’t have to focus on that. We can focus on all the great things that are happening within our schools. The fabric of our future is stitched together by our experiences, the exposure to different cultures and the strength of our friendships and families. We all know that our children thrive in an environment where their needs are met. It’s only then they can push past and beyond any perceived limit,” said Board member Kathleen Cross.
Board member Shant Sahakian reiterated his commitment to LGBTQ+ students.
“We have to find ways to have peaceful conversations, we have to find ways to have peaceful resolutions, and in some cases we will have to agree to disagree, but we need to do it with a focus on our kids,” he said.
The Board also highlighted students graduating high school on Wednesday, and kids who went through promotion this week.
“I’ve had the pleasure this week to watch our children thrive as they are promoted. It’s been incredible to watch their smiles when they hear their name called. That’s what this is all about. It’s about that growth and that excitement,” said Cross.
“My colleagues and I have had the opportunity to participate in promotion ceremonies and we have heard many student speeches, we have seen our students celebrated as they should be. The themes we are seeing are hard work, respect, friendship, empathy, kindness and resilience,” said Sahakian.
Nahabedian summed up the night in her closing remarks. “We want to separate the national conversations from Glendale and ask ourselves, What kind of [school] district do we want to be? How can we constructively work together
to make sure our students are getting a good education, getting to know who their classmates are, who their neighbors are, and be able to really see themselves in the curriculum and move forward as they are learning everything to prepare them for their future,” she said.
City Council on Tuesday also recognized Pride month and the contributions of LGBTQ+ members of the community. Mayor Dan Brotman released a statement on Instagram condemning the violence at GUSD headquarters.
“I am deeply disturbed by the hateful speech that continues to be hurled at the GUSD Board and at our LGBTQ+ community. It is no accident that this erupted into violence last night. Let there be no ambiguity. As mayor of Glendale, I stand in full support of our school administrators, teachers and the vast majority of parents of all ethnic backgrounds that believe in tolerance and acceptance. I stand in full support of our rich and diverse LGBTQ+ community, without whom we would not be the great city we are. As violence erupted outside the GUSD Board meeting, my colleagues and I proudly proclaimed June as Pride month in Glendale and lit up City Hall in the colors of the Pride flag. I call on all civic leaders to stand up and loudly reject the politics of hate and division. The time for silence or bothsidesism is over,” he wrote.
City Hall was lit in rainbow colors to commemorate Pride month and support the LGBTQ+ community of Glendale.
First published in the June 10 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.