Clashes between outspoken critics of access to material and discussion on gender and sexuality in public schools and openly LGBTQ students, staff and allies continued at the San Ramon Valley Unified School District's most recent board meeting, following a raucous and lengthy meeting on policies around material in school libraries at their previous meeting.
In a presentation on resolutions that were already approved by the board but highlighted at the March 14 meeting, district educational equity director Hong Nguyen introduced this year's Day of Silence in a presentation.
"It is a day that takes place this year on Friday, April 14," Nguyen said. "It's observed by those who choose to take a day-long vow of silence throughout the whole day to show support as well as to be a show of empathy for those that feel voiceless within our schools and across our country."
"While concentrated on our LGBTQ+ students, the Day of Silence is a day to show support for all students so that way we know they can be their authentic selves and because some of our students are voiceless within our schools, they can't be their authentic selves all the time," she continued.
The SRVUSD board adopted a resolution recognizing the day following a successful petition from faculty and student groups in 2016, with the Day of Silence first coming into fruition in 1996. The day is now observed by many SRVUSD schools, but not all, according to Nguyen.
"It is a student-driven initiative," Nguyen said. "The students that do participate in it, they practice empathy and hope and really to carry on the message of hope to those students that in our LGBTQ community feel alone or feel silenced or in this case feel isolated."
Despite the growing popularity of the event and LGBTQ acceptance more broadly in the years since its inception in 1996 -- leading up to the 2016 board resolution recognizing students' participation -- and despite the item not being up for a vote that night, it was met with skepticism and criticism in several public comments that ensued.
"I would be very curious to note what is the cost of a single day of operation for every school within the San Ramon Valley Unified School District that recognizes the day of silence," Lisa Disbrow said. "I think it would be a hefty price tag -- staff, heating, electricity -- just the cafeteria lunch, all of that that adds up. I don't think the taxpayers of California feel very appreciated when such an enormous gift is mistreated for a political purpose."
"If students want to have a political action it should happen separate from the instructional day. The instructional day is for everyone, not everyone shares the vision nor do they have to -- there's no law, it's not a moral right or wrong; it's a choice -- and yet all of the students will be impacted," she continued.
Mike Arata, a regular attendee and critic at SRVUSD board meetings, claimed that the Day of Silence was part of more deeply rooted, politically motivated effort to "indoctrinate" students that formed as part of a secret collaboration between LGBTQ activists decades ago, with changing views and practices on gender and sexuality coming in the wake of such efforts.
"Today the trendy dysphoria du jour is the psychosis or the flight from reality that is transgenderism, a delusion which declares insanely that men and boys can become women and girls and vice versa or that people can simply be non-binary or gender-fluid," Arata said. "San Ramon Valley schools seamlessly introduce and reinforce such neuroses even in the youngest grades."
He went on to argue that the Day of Silence was being recognized by participating students and teachers at the expense of academics.
"The Day of Silence deliberately interferes with the normal academic day as you heard since students involved in such activism are permitted not to speak in class and teachers are encouraged to cooperate in such interference," Arata said.
Bob Allen, an openly gay statistics teacher at California High School, refuted comments from Disbrow and Arata, arguing that they were out of touch with the reality of issues facing students and their growing openness to identifying as, and accepting, members of LGBTQ groups.
"As far as the taxpayer money, I wish people in this district would be more concerned about students who don't attend class, students who have issues where they don't feel comfortable coming to class," Allen said.
"As a teacher currently in the district, I do not see how participation in the Day of Silence has cost any tax money at all," he continued. "It is a student-led recognition and to be sure some of our teachers, most of our teachers, have great relationships with the queer community -- some do need to be reminded again that 23% of our students identify as not straight; 2% of our students identify as trans."
"23% of our students is more than two high schools in our district," Allen added. "2% of our students is one high school gym. And these students do feel affected by what goes on in the classroom. And so the Day of Silence is a nice reminder that teachers, that school employees could be a bit more forgiving."
While the board didn't move to change the resolution recognizing the Day of Silence that was passed years ago, trustees did weigh in on the debate at the end of the public comment period on the item.
"I think we need to ask ourselves what the cost is on students to the marginalization that happens, the shaming that happens, the discrimination that happens in our schools at times in our community -- in this board room -- what that cost is on our students, and we need to understand that an opportunity like this resolution, an opportunity like the Day of Silence … students are the ones that drive the Day of Silence, that participate in the day of silence in our schools today," Area 3 Trustee Laura Bratt said.
"So I think we need to understand and value the fact that this again is an opportunity for us to center students who are asking us to center them and their silence and to amplify that silence, and to really understand and value the fact that there are times when our students feel silenced, and that is just not OK," she continued.
Student Trustee Anya Ayyapan also offered insight into the experience on the ground for students participating in the Day of Silence.
"Teachers can choose to participate in discussions, students who are participating in the Day of Silence are not exempt from tests or exams -- the instructional curriculum continues as planned," Ayyapan said. "Students who choose not to verbally speak, they have the option to write a lot of the time. But more than that, it seems really counterintuitive but the day of silence actually spurs a lot of conversation on campus."
Nonetheless, debate surrounding the larger landscape of discussions and material on LGBTQ gender and sexuality in schools continued to rage during the open public comment portion of the most recent meeting, as well as at past meetings.
"This sensitive subject needs to be taught at home and not in the schools," Julie Pelley said. "The schools need to teach reading, writing, math, science, art and music and PE, and not sexually driven kindness, respect, and manners 101."
Steven Pelley spoke subsequently, emphasizing that he and his wife, the previous speaker, had lived in the area for decades since "Bishop Ranch was a ranch."
"Recent developments in the schools here have led me to believe that the public schools here are promoting social engineering by pushing your values on students and families," Steven Pelley said. "Whether one agrees or not, this has no place in a public school. Many of these views are divisive and polarizing. It should be left to the students' families to deal with these issues as they arise within their own framework and their values."
In a separate comment during the open public comment period, Allen emphasized the importance of acceptance for all students, and reiterated that openly LGBTQ students make up a statistically sizable portion of those served by the district. He also emphasized that LGBTQ identities, culture and discussions are not recent developments.
"Unlike some of the people who've spoken recently, and this is a huge assumption -- they're probably straight -- and I knew I was gay in seventh grade in 1980 ... needless to say, there were no resources available for me," Allen said. "At the age of 18, I made the decision to figure out who I am. The AIDS crisis put me back in the closet."
While the debates at recent board meetings -- including the previous one in which more than 30 commenters weighed in on an informational item outlining the district's existing policies for book acquisitions and complaints on Feb. 21 -- have centered on what is appropriate and healthy for students, Allen also noted that the heated debates were having an impact on him and other adults with skin in the game.
"I acknowledge the fact that as taxpayers and members of the community that anyone can comment at this meeting," Allen said. "That being said, please discount the diatribes of the gentleman who quotes Ed Code and board policy chapter and verse, but devolves into calling professionals, people, and organizations childish names, such as an immature reporter, doctor in air quotes, and a libertine organizations, usually in a spittle-flecked tirade. Then he retreats to the echo chamber that is the comments section of DanvilleSanRamon.com."
"Instead, listen to the parents and community members who can have a civil conversation about these matters," he continued. "Listen to those who want students to have information and yet are concerned about some materials."