Fresno faith leaders stood outside Fresno Unified headquarters on Monday, calling on trustees to remove school board president Brooke Ashjian, after he likened LGBT advocates to perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide.
“The longer that the bullying rhetoric of Brooke Ashjian is permitted and tolerated by Fresno Unified board members, the greater the erosion of confidence in the general public will grow,” said Rev. Chris Breedlove, of the Community United Church of Christ. “Since Ashjian shows no sincere remorse or consideration to step down as Fresno Unified board president, it is therefore incumbent upon the rest of the Fresno Unified school board members to vote out board president Ashjian or seek his removal in an expedient manner. The entire Fresno Unified board is now responsible and possibly liable for the vitriolic and bigoted remarks of (Ashjian.)”
While trustees do not have the authority to remove Ashjian from the board, three of the seven school board members have spoken out against him. Trustee Christopher De La Cerda publicly called for his resignation in an op-ed published by The Bee this month. Trustee Valerie Davis said Monday she would support removing him as board president, pointing out that she voted against making him president earlier this year.
The entire Fresno Unified board is now responsible and possibly liable for the vitriolic and bigoted remarks of Fresno Unified School board president Brooke Ashjian.
Rev. Chris Breedlove, Community United Church of Christ
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“The distraction has been like none I’ve ever seen before,” said Davis, who has served on the board for 13 years. “It’s unnerving, and it has really dominated the beginning of our school year.”
When asked about Ashjian, trustee Cal Johnson said “I never voted for him in the first place.”
Trustees Carol Mills, Claudia Cazares and Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas did not return requests for comment. Ashjian also did not respond to requests for comment.
Church leaders at the news conference said they are circulating a petition demanding Ashjian’s resignation that they hope to get on a school board meeting agenda next month, and also are considering starting the recall process. According to Fresno Unified, a trustee can only be removed by a public recall vote or by a judge if it is found they have violated laws.
To hold a recall election, 20 percent of the registered voters living in Ashjian’s Bullard High region would have to sign a petition, meaning at least 7,137 signatures, according to Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth.
“If the number of signatures on the petition meets the legal threshold, then the county elections official would certify the petition to the school board. Typically the school board calls the election,” Orth said in an email. “This process is governed by many legal requirements and usually takes approximately 4-6 months to complete.”
7,137Voters in Ashjian’s district required to sign petition to ignite recall election
Monday’s news conference was the latest call for Ashjian’s resignation, which started after he made controversial comments about LGBT-inclusive sex education earlier this month: “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 said. “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”
At a school board meeting last week, Ashjian spurred new concerns after he refused to resign and compared the LGBT advocates calling for his resignation to Ottoman Turks who carried out the Armenian Genocide. Fresno has a large Armenian community, including Ashjian.
“It is sad, they like the Ottomans are trying to be the thought police. They are trying to make people of faith second-class citizens, as they seek to silence our voices in the public square,” Ashjian said Aug. 23. “Just like what my grandparents and millions of other grandparents had to endure at the hands of the Ottomans before escaping to America.”
Bill Knezovich, a pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, said Ashjian’s comments downplay the horrors of the Armenian Genocide, and hurt students.
The distraction has been like none I’ve ever seen before.
Fresno Unified Trustee Valerie Davis
“To hear such reprehensible words coming from an elected official, who supposedly represents a very diverse school district, it was unconscionable,” he said. “He must resign. Even if you don’t agree philosophically or theologically, you just can’t have a person like this in a leadership position.”
A libel lawsuit Ashjian settled in 2013 shows that anti-gay comments were made from his home computer after a Fresno LGBT rights group put his businesses on a boycott list because of his support of Proposition 8, which aimed to ban same-sex marriage.
Jim Grant, the director of social justice ministry for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, said Ashjian does not understand the responsibilities of an elected official.
“To speak the way he speaks, and to think the way he thinks, is reprehensible,” Grant said. “I would hope the school board would see its own need to replace him from his presidency and to have someone of much more understanding of the community and their rights.”
He must resign. Even if you don’t agree philosophically or theologically, you just can’t have a person like this in a leadership position.
Bill Knezovich, pastor at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Eleanor Dote, who is transgender and has a son who graduated from Bullard High School this year, was at Monday’s news conference, and said the issue is bigger than the LGBT community.
“There’s just all these different things that he blurts out that are offensive and not well thought out and not educated. Then he goes and defends himself in very inappropriate ways,” Dote said. “You have to lead by example, that’s the most concerning thing to me. It’s showing our students you don’t have to be educated to succeed.”
Faith leaders also asked that trustees consider officially censuring Ashjian. A censure is a formal statement of disapproval that would say that Ashjian’s remarks don’t reflect the entire board. Last week, Fresno Unified held a news conference to affirm its support of LGBT students in wake of the controversy.
“A censure is something that stays with you throughout your political career, so if his motivations are to run for further political office, the censure stays with him,” Breedlove said. “Already, this issue will stay with him. We aren’t going away. This is just a start.”