Glendale Unified School District Gender Policy Sparks Divisive Talk

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By Camila Castellanos

GLENDALE, Calif. (Glendale News-Press) — Glendale Unified School Board of Education (GUSD) members urged decency and respect among meeting attendees and the community at large at the April 18 school board meeting as public speakers crowded the board room to speak on issues regarding gender support plans or the management of files for transgender students.

In the same meeting that saw the board approve resolutions titled “Holocaust Remembrance Day” and “Remembering the Armenian Genocide and Reaffirming a Better World,” a GUSD 5th-grade teacher held up a swastika sign arranged using four transgender flags and another person held a sign calling for the assistant superintendent to leave her position. Counterprotesters held signs that read “No room for hate.”

Glendale Police Department officers were also present, prepared to keep the decorum and escort public speakers who would not leave the dais after their allotted time ended back to their seats or out of the room. After the meeting, police officers were available to accompany some GUSD board members and administrators to their vehicles safely after they had received threatening emails.

Toward the end of an otherwise, routine board meeting that reviewed a textbook change, issued accolades and announced school events, board members reflected on the public speaker comments and urged people to understand the facts when it comes to gender policy — standards set by the California Department of Education.

“It really breaks my heart when I see the audience that I saw earlier today, because the intent that we have as a community is to bring our kids into an environment in which they can learn without hesitation, without pressure, without the fear of not being accepted, of who they are,” said a visibly upset Superintendent Vivian Ekchian.

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“And many of us in different settings have felt that not being accepted does not help us do our best. And our intent has always been to offer environments in which every child can do their best. And we as adults have an obligation to find ways to work with each other so that the burden isn’t on our students to feel that there is separation or division among our community on various topics.”

Public speakers varied from sharing personal experiences to political diatribes. A few speakers showed support for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, though most expressed distrust or anger over district policy regarding LGBTQ+ students. Ray Shelton, the GUSD teacher who held up a swastika sign [which was later confiscated], spoke to his opposition of transgender identities, though he himself identifies as a gay man, he said during public comments.

Shelton’s retirement after 25 years of teaching was announced at the meeting, effective June 9. Shelton, who is listed on the GUSD website as a teacher at Mark Keppel Elementary School, has not been on campus since Tuesday, said GUSD Communications Director Kristine Nam. She declined to elaborate, citing personnel privacy policy.

Board member Ingrid Gunnell addressed the hate symbol Shelton displayed, saying, “I just want to say on this Holocaust Remembrance Day, and moving towards Armenian genocide recognition on Monday, that it very much saddens me that there is a swastika in this boardroom today,” she said, though praising the “swift action” taken to remove the sign.

Ekchian urged parents or community members who have questions regarding district policy or teachings to reach out directly to a school principal or an administrator.

“I think there are a number of misunderstandings and I do think there are individuals who take advantage of bits and pieces of information and then post it widely into the larger world that creates misunderstandings that harm our children.

“We are in it for the sake of our kids so that they can be successful. But the reality is there are so many misunderstandings or miscommunications put out there to divide this community that we have to fight. We have to come together and find a way to really speak the truth, but speak to advocacy for all children,” she said.

Board President Nayiri Nahabedian emphasized the recognition GUSD and its leaders, including Ekchian, have received for their outstanding achievements. She also warned people to not fall into negative rhetoric.

“It’s important to be able to distinguish between myths and facts about what happens at Glendale Unified School District, what is taught at Glendale Unified School District, and how students are treated,” she said. “Let us take the time to distinguish myths from facts, and to think about miscommunication and misunderstanding and taking things out of context and using that … to create more misunderstanding.”

Ekchian concluded by encouraging people to practice kindness when engaging in public debate. “My only request from the community and from everyone [who] participates in this dialogue is let’s please try hard to understand each other for the sake of our students so that we can advocate for their rights because they are minors. We are here as adults and we have an obligation to create a better world,” she said.

(First published in the April 22 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.)

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