At a heated school board meeting, Fresno Unified trustees fought for the chance to apologize in the wake of board President Brooke Ashjian’s comments about LGBT people.
Controversy arose after Ashjian weighed in on the California Healthy Youth Act, a law that requires schools to teach unbiased and medically accurate sex education, including lessons on birth control, abortion and LGBT relationships.
“My biggest fear in teaching this – which we’re going to do it because it’s the law – but you have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that way,” Ashjian told The Bee in a story published Aug. 4 as part of an ongoing series on sex education. “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”
At the meeting Wednesday night, Ashjian moved to block attempts by Trustees Valerie Davis and Christopher De La Cerda to address his comments, saying they were speaking out of order. Davis and De La Cerda continued to speak over Ashjian’s call to return to the agenda, ultimately leading interim Superintendent Bob Nelson to intervene and the board to take a break.
Davis said Ashjian’s comments do not reflect the district and “devalue our commitment to our children.”
“I apologize to our community who felt marginalized and offended by the recent publicized comments,” she said. “As a trustee, I guarantee you I will continue to fight for all our students and staff to make sure they have a safe learning environment to come to every day.”
At the meeting’s conclusion, other trustees voiced their support for the LGBT community. Ashjian also spoke to the audience, some of whom had earlier spoken in the public comment period as LGBT people:
“For you to come all the way down here, whether you agreed with me or didn’t, it’s truly in my heart an apology to you that you may have been slighted. That was never the intent,” he said. “My position here is about children. I’ve never distinguished between whether they were gay or this or that or white or from north Fresno, south Fresno, whatever. They were always children.”
I apologize to our community who felt marginalized and offended by the recent publicized comments.
Fresno Unified Trustee Valerie Davis
The board also was informed Wednesday of past allegations of anti-LGBT comments made by Ashjian. According to a deposition from a 2011 libel lawsuit Ashjian was involved in, derogatory comments made about the organization Gay Fresno were tracked to a computer at his home.
In the deposition, Ashjian admits to posting about Gay Fresno to a website called Ripoffreport.com, but says he can’t recall what he posted. The attorneys in the deposition claim that only three comments were made about Gay Fresno on the website – all anonymously.
The comments say Gay Fresno is run by “pimps in disguise” and that “they put me into prostitution.” Another comment says the group is run by liars, thieves and “butt draggers.”
“I was pimped out. They stole my money, my dignity and my virginity,” one comment said. “These people are evil. You have been warned!”
The comments were posted after Gay Fresno added Ashjian’s businesses to a list of companies that should be boycotted for supporting Proposition 8, which aimed to ban same-sex marriage in 2008.
In the deposition, Ashjian says that his businesses donated $2,000 to supporters of Proposition 8 – the 2008 measure that defined marriage as being between a man and woman, which was later overturned by the courts. Ashjian says he was aware that Gay Fresno had put him on the boycott list. “I can tell you that if I would have known they would have put me on that list, I would have doubled my donation,” Ashjian says in the deposition.
When asked about the deposition Wednesday, Ashjian would not comment, saying, “I haven’t seen it and I don’t know what it’s about.” Also at the meeting, a man identified himself as Ashjian’s bodyguard and followed the trustee through the board room and adjacent hallways. But Ashjian denied hiring a bodyguard when asked by a reporter.
For you to come all the way down here, whether you agreed with me or didn’t, it’s truly in my heart an apology to you that you may have been slighted. That was never the intent.
Fresno Unified board President Brooke Ashjian
Deposition documents were presented to trustees by attorney Kenneth Mackie, who sparked an ongoing investigation of Ashjian’s conflicts of interest by the California Fair Political Practices Commission. Mackie says he represents Fresno Watchdogs for Ethical Bidding, but has refused to identify the members behind the group.
When Mackie started to speak to the board Wednesday, Ashjian’s attorney issued him a statement that said Ashjian had acquired the rights to the name “Fresno Watchdogs for Ethical Bidding.” Ashjian attempted to stop Mackie from speaking, but FUSD attorneys advised him to go ahead without the use of the organization’s name – which Ashjian has trademarked since Mackie first started investigating him.
“This is not the first time (Ashjian) has made disparaging remarks about the LGBT community,” Mackie said. “I hope it’s the last. But the board needs to take this into consideration.”
Several LGBT advocates spoke out at the meeting against Ashjian, demanding an apology. Many Fresno Unified employees wore rainbow pins to show their support.
Bill Knezovich, a pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, who is gay, told Ashjian that he should keep his opinion and theology to himself.
“As a young man, a youth and a child, I was regularly beaten and sometimes left for dead because of people like you,” Knezovich said. “I don’t know what to say. You should not be board president.”
Pamela Beck, a Fresno Unified teacher for 30 years, told the story of a former student who hanged himself after being bullied for his sexuality. She said when she taught sex education, it was minimal and not inclusive.
“Being gay or anything other than heterosexual was never mentioned by adults,” Beck said. “I would like to see the board consistently voice this simple message: Being gay or straight or transgender or queer or bisexual is OK.”