After months of increasingly divisive rhetoric reached a tipping point Tuesday night when a School Board public comment session was abruptly halted, and two audience members were detained by county deputies.
Contentious input sessions have been staples of the School Board’s bi-monthly meetings for more than a year as a vocal group of parents criticized the pandemic school closures. In recent months, those speeches have focused on the school division’s equity initiatives and the proposed adoption of a state-mandated policy concerning the rights of transgender students.
The latter was the featured topic on Tuesday’s meeting agenda.
The meeting room was packed with speakers supporting a proposed policy for transgender students and critics who oppose that policy and the school division’s equity programs.
Nearly 250 had signed up to speak during the public comment period.
Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) repeatedly warned the audience to refrain from cheering or clapping during the comment session—which, with each speaker allotted one minute to talk, was expected to take four hours. After one outburst, she called a brief recess. The session resumed until, following remarks by former state senator Dick Black criticizing the board’s actions, the crowd erupted again.
Atoosa Reeser (Algonkian) made a motion to end public comment, approved by a unanimous board vote. After board members left the dais, members of the crowd and began to chant “shame on you.”
The crowd formed a line to continue with an informal public comment, butdeputies were called to clear the room.
A second man was arrested after getting into an altercation with another audience member and then a scuffle with deputies.He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He and one other audience member were treated for minor injuries.
The School Board resumed its meeting about 30 minutes later with only school staff and media in the room.
A National Battleground
The School Board’s public comment forums have helped make Loudoun County a high-profile battleground for national debates over inclusivity for transgender people and education about structural racism. Last Friday, the national morning news program “Fox and Friends” broadcast a live remote from Leesburg during which reporter Lawrence Jones interviewed a number of local conservative activists and parents about the controversies.
Two Loudouners have been elevated to larger spotlights especially in conservative media after appearances at School Board meetings went viral in recent months.
Brandon Michon, aparent who with his family spoke regularly at School Board meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, became a Republican celebrity after video of his appearance at a local School Board meeting, screaming at them to “figure it out” and reopen schools, went viral and became a rallying cry. When Republican candidate for governor Glenn Youngkin came to Purcellville during his primary campaign, the event was just one of several that featured brief remarks from Michon.
Earlier this month, an elementary school P.E. teacher, Byron “Tanner” Cross, saw his case picked up by Arizona-based Christian nonprofit advocacy groupAlliance Defending Freedom and his story picked up in national media after he was placed on leave following his comments opposing the protections for transgender students. After saying he would not follow the new policy to refer to those students by their chosen names and gender identity, he was placed on leave over concerns about disruptions to the school environment, then successfully sued for a court order to be put back to work. The school system has announced it plans to appeal that decision to the state Supreme Court.
‘Learning is Not Political’
Just before Tuesday’s board meeting, competing groups held rallies outside the School Administration Building.
Organizers of the Loudoun for All rally sought to demonstrate support for the LGBTQ community. Nearby, Fight for Schools, which is leading an effort to recall School Board members, protested against the proposed policy for transgender students and the school division’s equity programs.
Tensions were high, as Fight for Schools advocates jeered LGBTQ supporters, and cheered as a bus covered in signs calling for Beth Barts’ (Leesburg) recall drove through the parking lot.
Before the meeting, Ted Sjurseth, organizer of America’s 9/11 Foundation that led annual motorcycle ride to all three 9/11 crash sites, said he was there to “voice my disgust at what’s going on in the Loudoun County school system. It’s changed a lot in the last five years. … They’re forcing this stuff down their throat.”
Nearby, Jack Agates, a 2019 Heritage High School graduate, waited in line to enter the boardroom.
“I’m here to support acceptance and equity for Loudoun students. I feel like Loudoun County is a place where everyone should feel like they are accepted and learning is not political, it should never be politicized,” he said, adding that never felt that an agenda was pushed on him when he was a student.
This article was updated with a correction regarding arrests at 10:19 a.m. June 23. A previous version incorrectly stated Ted Sjurseth had been detained.