Charlottesville City Schools violated anti-discrimination policy, School Board member says

A Charlottesville School Board member said the way that Charlottesville City Schools handled a situation pertaining to gender inclusivity violated its own anti-discrimination policy. 

A complaint made about the use of the word “nonbinary” in the third grade prompted the school division to remove all lesson components having to do with LGBTQ identities and families from all elementary social studies classes, said School Board member Lashundra Bryson Morsberger.

One of the lessons  in the second-grade, for example, excised all LGBTQ families from slides, Morsberger said. 

Under the division antiracist policy, which was approved on Oct. 3, 2019, CCS said it is committed to “nondiscrimination with regard to sex, gender, race, color, nationality, disability, … sexual orientation, identify or expression, political affiliation or any classification protected by law.” 

Morsberger said she saw email traffic between the School Board and to Superintendent Rosa Atkins about the curriculum being removed. The decision was first made by a staff member and then affirmed by Atkins, Morsberger said. 

She added the majority of the School Board members pushed back from Atkins’ decision.

“I talked to her on the phone, and she was like, ‘It’s under review. We pulled it,’” Morsberger said. “And I was like, ‘You pull anything that’s under review? If I said I don’t like Vinegar Hill, you’re [going] to pull it like that? [That]doesn’t sound right. And so she kind of danced around it.” 

Morsberger reiterated that the way the issue was handled violated the division’s anti-discrimination policy.  

“We’re violating the [Virginia Values Act] and our processes to review. And then, if there’s an issue, figure it out, but not just pull,” she said.  

Lashundra Bryson Morsberger is the newest member of the Charlottesville School Board.

CCS spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said the recent incident didn’t violate the division’s own anti-discrimination policy, and confirmed that as part of the city schools’ larger antiracist and anti-bias work, the division posted some new social science lessons. 

Cheuk confirmed that a parent raised questions about one of the lessons. 

“The lessons in question were temporarily taken down for review on Sept. 17,” Cheuk said. “After a policy review and in consultation with the School Board, the lessons were reposted on Sept. 24. No state law was violated.” 

 Beth said the lesson was about identity as an introduction to set the stage for the school system’s social science curriculum. 

“The lesson spoke about various elements of identity including race, religion, languages spoken, ethnicity, age, siblings, hobbies/interests and gender. As part of the discussion on gender, there was a brief mention that some people identify their gender as nonbinary. Ultimately, we heard from two families who had questions and a number of teachers and families who appreciated the lesson,” she said. 

“As to the inclusion of gender identity in the lesson, this work is in keeping with forthcoming guidance from the state as required by House Bill 145.” 

Morsberger said the incident is on Thursday’s School Board agenda as an item for discussion.

“As a community, what are our values, and how are we treating people? And don’t we value our LGBTQ families, teachers and staff?” she said. 

The way the situation was handled is frustrating because this is an inclusive community, she said. She also said that all the reasons for pulling the curriculum were not valid, if it couldn’t stand to challenge. 

“We all deserve to see ourselves reflected in the lessons and the history and what’s being taught,” Morsberger said, adding that moving forward she wants the division to be transparent and clear and that things like this don’t happen in the future. “We have to make sure that these decisions are being held to account.” 

 Amy-Sarah Marshall, a CCS parent, said she’s angry about what the division did.

Marshall is lesbian and her daughter, a ninth-grader at Charlottesville High School, also is of the LGBTQ community. 

“We have so much of an emphasis on equity in terms of race, which is amazing,” said Marshall, who once served as president of Charlottesville Pride for nine years.

“What frustrates me is it’s a very antiquated idea to think that dealing with LGBTQ equity and inclusion is something separate from race. Because my experience here in Charlottesville specifically, and even though we should say in the broader sense ruralwise, [people] who are of color and who are gay or trans, experience much higher rates of family rejection, exclusion, violence, abuse, bullying, all of those things, than white kids who are gay and trans. They’re experiencing a double whammy.”  

Ignoring sexual inclusivity has an effect on self-esteem when children feel that their identity is not worth anybody standing up for by adults who they’re supposed to look up to when that’s not even something that gets mentioned or talked about, said Marshall, who also said that her daughter was bullied at her school for having two moms. 

“That’s called shame. And I don’t want my kids to experience that about themselves or about me, their parents or other people in their lives,” she said.

Moving forward, Marshall said she’d like the division to implement a curriculum that addresses LGBTQ issues. She’s also asking the division to train teachers and staff at all grade levels throughout the system. 

“I’m asking for there to be a policy that is clear about expecting interventions and anti-bullying measures and for there to be support,” she said.  

In doing so, the division will not only prepare LGBTQ children, but they will prepare children who are not in that group on how to interact with others as they become adults. 

“We are doing a disservice to all the kids if we’re not teaching them the basics of interacting,” she said. 

At Thursday’s School Board meeting, several parents voiced concerns about the recent incident and demanded an explanation. 

Beth Ike, a CCS parent, said that she had hoped that she could hear some explanations pertaining to recent decisions on school reopening, but also about why certain LGBTQ-related content was targeted for removal at the elementary level. 

Ike asked that the School Board take these two issues seriously and respectfully demanded accountability from leadership. 

“Dr. Atkins, perhaps these two issues did not originate with you but, as our superintendent, the buck stops with you. I’m hoping we can hear from you this evening,” she said. 

Another parent, who is queer, said her 8-year-old child attends Venable Elementary and identifies as non-binary.

The parent said she’s asking Atkins and CCS Chief Academic Officer Katina Otey to provide a statement that they understand the Virginia Values Act and begin implementing support for LGBTQ students and staff. 

The Virginia Values Act is a law that protects many different people from discrimination, including gender identity and sexual orientation, the parent said. 

She asked the division to train the staff and recommended Side by Side, a Richmond-based LGBTQ organization that provides training for such topics. 

“Let me tell you about my non-binary child, and how much I love them and how proud I am of them every day. My child is amazing. She’s smart. She’s talented. She’s funny. She’s a good friend. She works hard as a student. She loves her school,” the parent said at the meeting.

“And she loves everyone in her school. Please love her back. Please show her that she exists in the world. She gets to have that. She gets to see herself represented as she is in her full, beautiful life.” 

Denise T. Johnson, the division’s supervisor of equity and inclusion, said the division plans to begin a series of conversations on Oct. 9  centered on equity and inclusion and anti-bias topics, such as cultural differences, sexual orientation and gender identity.  She has also reached out to Side by Side.

Atkins attempted to explain her reason for removing the curriculum, citing that, per the division’s policy, she normally brings any new curriculum or textbooks to the School Board for approval.

The curriculum didn’t get the board’s approval, she said, a process that has worked well previously but experienced drawbacks this time due to the pandemic. 

But Morsberger said Atkins’ explanation does not add up, and that her process of removing the curriculum and then adding it back was not transparent.

“Mrs. Bryson Morsberger, I’m sorry that you don’t understand. However, I can give you my explanations, and I know that I gave you a very transparent explanation and you may not understand it, and you may not accept it,” Atkins said.

“But I know I’m giving a very transparent and very forthright explanation to what happened. Oftentimes, when a person does not agree with another person, regardless of what you say, it may not be received well.” 

A community member during a public comment called out Atkins for  the way she addressed  Morsberger.

Atkins later apologized. 

“If I, in any way, spoke to you in any manner that was not professional,[for] that I apologize,” she said.