The interim superintendent of the Fresno Unified School District gathered Wednesday with representatives of LGBTQ organizations to demonstrate the district’s commitment to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.
Bob Nelson held a news conference at which he announced a series of steps that he expects to include in a framework to present to the board to ensure protection of LGBTQ students from harassment and bullying at Fresno Unified campuses.
The news conference came as California’s fourth largest school district deals with comments made earlier this month by Fresno Unified board president Brooke Ashjian to The Bee over state requirements that sex education programs include discussion of LGBTQ relationships. In an Aug. 4 story, Ashjian said that while the district would abide by the law, he had concerns.
“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 have just swayed the kid to go that way,” Ashjian, a Mormon who is politically conservative, told The Bee. “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”
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The remarks triggered a flurry of reactions, including a statement from Nelson and the district affirming Fresno Unified’s commitment to tolerance and inclusiveness only a few days after Ashjian’s remarks were published.
Wednesday’s announcement, just hours before a board meeting where Ashjian’s comments were expected to be revisited, sprang from a meeting Nelson held Tuesday at the district offices with members of Fresno Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network, My LGBT Plus, Trans E Motion, LGBT Fresno, Community Link, and community leaders including Fresno City College President Carole Goldsmith and former Fresno Unified trustee Pat Barr.
The community meeting also came just a few days after Equality California, a statewide civil rights organization, sent a letter to Nelson urging him to pledge to protect the rights of LGBTQ students.
Nelson was flanked by several school trustees and district staff members, with members of LGTBQ members in the audience, as he outlined the measures he plans to bring to the board within 30 days to ensure safety and security for students. Those include increasing support for gay/straight student alliance clubs on district campuses, and improving professional training opportunities for school staff members to intervene when they see harassment or bullying of LGBTQ students.
“It’s as true of the teacher as it is of the bus driver or the superintendent or the office manager, that if we’re hearing issues where students are being mistreated or belittled in any manner, that we intervene,” Nelson said, “(and) that kids feel welcome and comfortable and that they know school is a place where they can come and be loved and be taught.”
He said the district will also look at partnering with the community LGBTQ groups at re-establishing a 1-800 telephone line “for emotional support for all students, including LGBTQ youth … who need someone to talk to about the issues they’re facing 24 hours a day.”
Nelson deftly avoided commenting on calls from within the LGBTQ community for Ashjian to resign his leadership post as board president because of his comments – a call reiterated earlier this week by Trustee Christopher De La Cerda .
“The board assigns its own leadership,” Nelson said, “and it’s for them to decide how that situation is going to take place.”
Jeffery Robinson, CEO of Community Link Inc., said he was pleased to hear Nelson give voice to all of the concerns and needs raised by the LGBTQ groups. Nelson, he said, “went the distance for us.”
For his part, Ashjian responded to critics at an Aug. 9 board meeting that “whether you agreed with me or didn’t, it’s truly in my heart an apology to you that may have been slighted” by the comments. “That was never the intent.” Other trustees offered their apologies on behalf of the district for Ashjian’s remarks as well.
Ashjian later pushed back against calls for his resignation as a school trustee in an Aug. 11 statement with a simple one-word answer: “No.”