Fresno Unified school board President Brooke Ashjian’s fellow trustees agree that his comments critical of the LGBT community were wrong, but parents, students and activists on Wednesday said that’s not enough.
Many have called for the board to remove Ashjian as president or officially censure him after he spoke out against LGBT-inclusive sex education and likened LGBT activists to perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. While school board members have voiced displeasure with Ashjian’s comments, it’s still unclear if any action to reprimand him will be taken.
At Wednesday’s board meeting – the first time a discussion to demote or censure was on an agenda – Ashjian stepped out of the room as the board voted to pass a resolution that recognizes October as LGBT History Month.
The resolution, which condemns bullying of LGBT students that contributes to “higher rates of isolation, depression and suicidal ideations or attempts” passed, with Ashjian marked as absent.
Ashjian returned to the dais shortly after the vote, but did not comment during the hour-plus discussion of his controversial remarks. More than a dozen people addressed the trustees, who also weighed in but gave no indication if the issue would be back for action on a future agenda.
The board has gone back and forth about whether it has the authority to shorten Ashjian’s term as president, in the face of calls for him to resign. On Wednesday, Trustee Carol Mills, an attorney, said the board “has absolutely no legal authority” to remove Ashjian altogether, and also that the bylaws “don’t provide” for Ashjian to be removed as president before his presidency term is up in December.
Free speech is free, but it’s not free of consequences.
Trustee Christopher De La Cerda
Mills said that while she wishes Ashjian had not made the statements he did, he has a right to free speech.
“I hope that people do not really expect me to condemn the right of someone to engage in free speech,” Mills said. “There is a distinct difference between condemning the speech – which I do – and condemning and punishing someone for exercising that freedom of speech. I have difficulty doing that second one.”
But Trustee Christopher De La Cerda, who has called for Ashjian to step down as president, said the board has the authority to remove Ashjian as president, and should vote on it.
“Free speech is free, but it’s not free of consequences,” De La Cerda said, saying that Ashjian has violated policies that require him to represent the district in a respectable way. “It is allowable for us, and in the board’s authority, to govern our own business, and we reserve the right to choose our leadership.”
A spokesman for the California School Boards Association said that while it can’t speak for Fresno Unified, boards can end a president’s term. “In general, a school board, by majority vote, can strip a member of officer positions or committee seats at any time,” Troy Flint, the CSBA’s director of communications, said in an email.
Faith leaders who have been leading the charge against Ashjian said the free speech argument is a “red herring” and called for tangible action by the board.
A school board, by majority vote, can strip a member of officer positions or committee seats at any time.
Troy Flint, California School Boards Association
“This is not about free speech, it is about a person using his office to denigrate, isolate, dehumanize, alienate, vilify and attack a marginalized people,” said Bill Knezovich, a pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church. The board’s inaction condones Ashjian’s comments, he said, “sending a chilling message to the students of the district that it is OK to hate.”
Trustee Cal Johnson – who has pointed out that he voted against electing Ashjian as president – called the embattled official his “brother,” but took issue with the First Amendment argument made for him, noting the criticism NFL players have faced for kneeling during the national anthem over race relations.
“The individuals who came before the dais, I support you and I’m not going to say anything negative about you because the same kind of persecution that you go through, I’ve gone through that for years,” said Johnson, who is black. “Mr. Ashjian has a right to voice his opinion, but also as a leader, he needs to temper what he says. He took this oath of office.”
Trustee Valerie Davis voiced support for removing Ashjian as president and called for “a cease fire,” saying he needs to stop tweeting and talking on conservative talk radio about the issue. Davis called Ashjian “a likeable guy,” but said his words have hurt.
Please be empowered and do the right thing. Do a good thing. Make a censure.
Fresno Unified parent Kaylia Metcalfe
“I clearly would truly look forward to new leadership,” Davis said.
Trustees Claudia Cazares and Elizabeth Jonasson Rosas also have publicly voiced their displeasure with Ashjian’s words.
“We have been trying to conduct business since August,” a frustrated Cazares said Wednesday, “and I wish we could just get past this because our students deserve that.”
Some spoke in favor of Ashjian at the meeting, including Rev. Roger Minassian of the Fresno nonprofit Hope Now for Youth.
Minassian said he is against state-mandated sex education that recognizes same-sex relationships and likened LGBT youths to gang members and drug addicts.
“These lifestyles are very often unhealthy escapes … an escape from the anger of unrecognized childhood trauma,” he said.
But people such as Fresno Unified parent Kaylia Metcalfe said the district is not safe as long as Ashjian is at the helm.
“Please be empowered and do the right thing. Do a good thing. Make a censure,” she said through tears. “You’re good people, I know you are, so please act like it.”