Education Lab

Fresno Unified board president equates LGBT activists to Ottoman Turks, rejects calls to resign

Fresno Unified School Board President Brooke Ashjian spurned demands for his resignation from people in the audience at an overflow board meeting Wednesday night, and equated LGBT activists, who have opposed him, with Ottoman Turks.

Ashjian’s comments came at the end of a five-hour board meeting in which several dozen people addressed his remarks made earlier this month about LGBT-inclusive sex education. Some offered support for Ashjian’s views and his right to express them, while others said his words were harmful to students and urged him to step aside.

In a two-page letter that Ashjian read into the record, he said LGBT leaders were attacking his faith and trying to silence him and force him from the board, tactics he said were akin to what the Ottoman Turks did to Armenians leading up to the 1915 genocide. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923.

Ashjian, a Mormon, said: “These individuals who are personally attacking me and my religious foundation while demanding my resignation, I ask why? Is it simply because I exercised my constitutional rights of freedom of speech while I was doing my duty, or isn’t something more nefarious, like simply desiring to muzzle anyone who dares not fall in line with the narrative of the day.

“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. Just like what my grandparents and millions of other grandparents had to endure at the hands of the Ottomans before escaping to America.”

And Ashjian made one other thing clear: “I will NOT resign my position and I will not be silenced by bullies who want to control the public narrative by mischaracterizing the intent and meaning of my statements. My comments were not intended to offend anyone, but to simply express a concern. If we as board members cannot openly and honestly express concerns without being marginalized and labeled, then why do we even have a board?”

People in the board room, which was half full by the end of the meeting, reacted with stunned silence – and a scattering of applause – after Ashjian concluded his statement and adjourned the meeting at 11 p.m.

“I’m just in shock right now. I’m literally sick to my stomach,” said Jessica Mahoney, a Fresno Unified contracted bus driver who spoke earlier in the meeting as a private citizen.

A few minutes earlier during public comments, Mahoney had called for the board to revise its bylaws so Ashjian could be removed from his seat as president. “You don’t lose your job and it calms you down to stay focused,” she said. After Ashjian’s statement, Mahoney said: “He needs to resign. This is not the platform for him   this rhetoric does not belong on an educational board.”

Allison Murphy said she was left speechless and appalled by Ashjian’s words. “I fear for the LGBT kids and they must know they’re not alone,” she said. Murphy’s daughter, Chloe Anne Lacey, a transgender 18-year-old, died by suicide. Her daughter was a student at Buchanan High School in Clovis Unified School District. Murphy also had spoken earlier in the meeting, saying Ashjian should resign from the board. “I think he should be completely off,” she said.

The controversy swirling around Ashjian began when he talked to The Bee about 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.

In a story published Aug. 4 in The Bee, Ashjian said the district has to follow 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.” And Ashjian said, “it’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian philosophies.”

Those comments drew supporters and detractors of the board president to Wednesday night’s packed meeting.

Those backing Ashjian defended his personal opinions about the sexual education that the school district is required by law to provide. Those opposed to Ashjian’s stance said his personal views were detrimental to LGBT students.

Ben Bergquam voiced what many in support of Ashjian had come to say, that the board president had a right to his personal beliefs about the curriculum. “If we claim to be Christians, there is no law I think we should stand for that goes against God’s word.”

Jim Franklin, pastor of Cornerstone Church, said schools should be safe places for children – but also for parents. “Parents need to know  that their rights and their values are not being undermined.”

But representatives of the LGBT community said Ashjian’s comments were not only medically inaccurate, but hurtful.

“It sends a message that it is OK to spew misinformation,” said Zoyer Zyndel of Trans-E-Motion, a Fresno nonprofit advocacy organization for the transgender community. And Zyndel said the comments add to an environment that contributes to almost half of transgender youth committing suicide in the United States.

Trustee Christopher De La Cerda, a critic of Ashjian, said after the meeting that Ashjian has a right to his opinion but “we have a responsibility for the words we choose.” In an opinion piece that was published Wednesday in The Bee, De La Cerda said that he joined “various community members in asking Ashjian to step down as board president and allow board clerk Claudia Cazares to complete the remainder of his term.”

De La Cerda said Ashjian has “thrown us back into distraction and national headlines” at a time when the district should be focused on improving the education of children, finalizing a superintendent contract and resolving labor negotiations with teachers.

During a break in the board meeting, The Bee asked Ashjian to comment on De La Cerda’s opinion piece. Ashjian declined, saying “I don’t acknowledge The Fresno Bee as a legitimate news source.”

De La Cerda’s call for Ashjian to step down came a week after the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights organization in the country, said he should resign. Ashjian responded to that request with a single word: “No.”

On Friday, Equality California called on interim Superintendent Bob Nelson to pledge to protect LGBT students. And it asked him to participate in a Safe and Supportive School Index that the Los Angeles-based LGBTQ civil rights organization is developing. Wednesday afternoon Nelson said he had met with several LGBTQ organizations and expects to present something to the board in a month that will ensure protection of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and questioning students from harassment and bullying.

Nelson declined Wednesday afternoon to take a stand on calls for Ashjian to step aside as president, saying it was not for him to decide. “My job is to make sure, personally, that our students are not caught in the crossfire of really strong feelings from people in the community,” he said. Wednesday night, Nelson sat quietly as members of the public called for Ashjian’s resignation.

As the meeting wore on, trustees listened to the differing views of the audience, but withheld comments. Trustees were given an opportunity to respond later in the meeting, but Casares only thanked the public for coming and “talking to us about your beliefs about what is happening in our district.”

And the trustees sat silent as Ashjian read his letter.

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter