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Hours of public comment over social justice and sex-ed dominate school board meeting (photos)


A crowd assembled outside the Washoe County School District offices Tuesday afternoon for a protest ahead of the afternoon’s Board of Trustees meeting. They then provided hours of fiery public comment before trustees heard presentations and made long-awaited decisions concerning sexual education and the return of students to classrooms in the fall.

Paul White was one of a group of protesters who gathered outside the WCSD Administration Building May 25, 2021 in Reno, Nev. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Paul White was among the protesters. He said one of his primary concerns is that the school district’s curricula and policies are one-sided. White said he believes county test scores on national assessments show 70% of Washoe County graduates to be functionally illiterate.

“We’ve got the great needs of 62,000 kids … academically, behaviorally in the schools, financially,” he said. “They’re wasting tens of millions—and the board’s not dealing with any of that. They’re sitting there arguing about curriculum.

“So, I’m addressing today, specifically, the resignations. I’m saying there should have been seven, not two—minus Jeff Church, plus the superintendent,” he added.

Many of the protesters outside the school board meeting were there to protest an agenda item that was moved to a future meeting that would implement additional social justice resources in English Language Arts (ELA) curricula for kindergartners through fifth graders. 

Among them was Robert Heinrich.

“I’m here against the quote unquote social justice,” he said. “And no matter what the trustees say, it’s critical race theory. It’s racism. It’s racist. It’s neo-Marxist. It substitutes race as the divider instead of the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeois. What they’re introducing in CRT is race as a means to divide us. … To impose this upon the psyches of our children and grandchildren is unconscionable.”

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic concept that seeks to review social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racial justice.

Another person outside the meeting, Mark Green, said he came to give public comment on the procedures for adopting curriculum, specifically for the proposed addition of social justice resources for ELA.

“I’m a little concerned that the board has not followed their own procedures,” he said. “The specific item is the social justice [curriculum]. I’ve worked on adoption committees with this district. It took us months—months. And this seemed to spring up all done in a matter of just weeks, really. It can’t be done with the way it is supposed to be set up, not that quickly… I have to ask for proof that they followed what they were supposed to follow.”

The district has been seeking public input on the ELA social justice resources since April. The trustees will take up the issue at their June 8 meeting. A protest is planned to take place prior to that meeting as well.

Bruce Parks was one of the organizers of Tuesday’s protest. Parks often speaks during public comment in front of the school board and has become increasingly critical of the trustees in recent months. He, like White, believes the school district is not preparing students for work or further education following high school.

Bruce Parks was one of a number of protesters who gathered outside the WCSD Administration Building May 25, 2021 in Reno, Nev. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

“We’re out here because we care about our kids, and we care about how our tax dollars are being spent,” he said. “Washoe County School District’s Board of Trustees has one mandate—one mandate only. Educate our kids. Teach them what they need to know to be productive members of our society. Don’t indoctrinate them so they turn into social justice warriors or basement babies that are going to be parasites on society for the rest of their lives because they’re not educated well enough to get a job—or if somebody, heaven forbids, hurts their feelings, they don’t keep the job.”

Parks added that he believes the district has “plenty of money” but is not spending it wisely. District staff, on the other hand, have repeatedly noted that Nevada ranks among the states that invest the lowest dollar amounts per pupil.

Protesters continue complaints during public comment

Public comment during the meeting lasted for about three hours–much of it along the same vein as the protest outside. 

An 11-year-old child told the board, “I do not wear a mask, and I’ve never had a shot in my life—nor will I.”

She said when she returned to her classroom following distance learning that she hated wearing a mask and thought it would make her pass out before her mother jumped in to tell the board that her daughter’s teacher had shamed her for not wearing a mask when she showed up, allegedly under the impression that the district was no longer enforcing that COVID-19 mitigation measure.

Hope Backman told the board she’d contacted Superintendent Kristen McNeill, whom she said treated her poorly on the phone. Backman, who is a mother of two WCSD students, said she’s concerned about students being injected with biotoxins and that masks will cause them to have ringworm all over their faces. 

Backman asked McNeill if she has considered a career in the prison system.

“Inmates would be much more up your alley than our kids,” Backman said.

Karen England told the board she’s with Nevada Family Alliance and, allegedly, has had a lot of communication from people on the Empower Nevada Teachers Facebook group. She was there to oppose new sex ed curriculum for six graders, which she said will teach kids “about anal sex, dental dams and abortion without parental consent.”

The new curriculum does not mention these things. Furthermore, parents must opt in for their children to receive these sex-ed lessons.

Three hours of fiery comment, largely against sex-ed and social justice curriculum, dominated a Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting May 25, 2021. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno
Three hours of fiery comment, largely against sex-ed and social justice curriculum, dominated a Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting May 25, 2021. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Another parent, William Smith, drew visible surprise from others in the board chambers when he told the board he was not there to speak about sex ed curricula or social justice resources.

He told the board that on March 10 the female principal of Wooster High School entered the boys locker room while the football team was changing and getting COVID-19 testing to make sure they were wearing masks. 

He said he has asked for the incident to be investigated but was not satisfied with an initial inquiry that resulted in school officials not taking action against the principal. He asked the board to intervene.

This Is Reno asked the school district to confirm if investigations into the incident had taken place or were ongoing but had not received a response prior to publication of this story. 

Commenter Kenji Otto stood before the board to tell them he feels Trustee Jeff Church is the only trustee doing his job.

Church has recently begun publicly criticizing the board and its policies concerning social justice, LGBTQIA issues and more. On his website, he advertised the day’s protest and echoed the notion that the school district is indoctrinating children.

Church himself gave public comment, leaving the dais and stepping to the podium when his name was called. He said McNeill refuses to meet with him. 

“It’s a shame that I have to stand here to speak to you in my limited three minutes,” he said before imploring the board to consider a larger venue for its June 8 meeting, where it is expected that more protesters and commenters will be present to object to social justice resources in ELA curricula.

Board President Angie Taylor said she has agreed to mediation with Church.

Some voice support for district

Not all of the public comment was critical of social justice resources or sex education.

Education Chair for the Reno-Sparks branch of the NAACP, Lonnie Feemster, spoke in support of incorporating social justice resources. He said he was concerned after having spoken to the people protesting outside of the meeting.

“When you don’t go into my schools and you don’t talk to my students and you don’t talk to my amazing teachers, I have no idea how you can represent us.”

“I learned, one, that equity doesn’t mean the same to them that it does to me—some of the words we use,” Feemster said. “I am concerned that social justice curriculum and Black Lives Matter does not explain to another person exactly what you mean. 

“I don’t say ‘Black Lives Matter’ anymore. I say the ‘Black Lives Matter Movement for Criminal Justice Reform’ because it’s more accurately portraying what I mean. Of course, Black lives matter. All lives matter.”

YeVonne Allen spoke before the board to ask them to stand their “ground for equity, justice, diversity and inclusion” by adopting the proposed ELA social justice resources.

“I have heard some outlandish things today, and these statements prove the ignorance and why we need critical thinking, social justice and historical bias taught in Washoe County School District,” she said. “There is a narrative around town that we need to be just as loud as these protesters that you’ve seen today and that harass you, actually, now. But I ask you that you do not let these intolerant, albeit vocal, radicalized people make you forget that you are elected to support our community. Our students are diverse. It’s just the truth, and if leadership flows from the top, we need all of you.”

Greenbrae Elementary School Principal Jonna AuCoin did come with criticism for the board,but only one of its members–Church. 

She said she’d been driving home but listening to the public comment online and had turned around and come back to finish the public comment she’d started at a previous meeting but had not finished.

“I was addressing you, Trustee Church, and I didn’t get to say everything I had wanted to say because I was sidetracked because we had lost a dear friend,” she  said. “I just want you to know that you are a disappointment to me. You are a disappointment to our district. And I know that you have all of these people who stand here and read your words. But, when you don’t go into my schools and you don’t talk to my students and you don’t talk to my amazing teachers, I have no idea how you can represent us.

“I think your idea is just to fight, and I think your idea is just to create chaos. And shame on you for doing that—because we do have a lot of work. We are in the bottom in a lot of ways, but there is magic that is happening every single day,” she added.

Three hours of fiery comment, largely against sex-ed and social justice curriculum, dominated a Washoe County School District Board of Trustees meeting May 25, 2021. Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

Board business addressed following public comment

Following the hours of comment, the board was able to deal with its agendized business.

Trustees learned that with seven days left in the legislative session, the district’s priority bill—Assembly Bill 57—has passed both chambers of the legislature and is on its way to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk for his signature.

AB 57 will temporarily waive the requirement for pupil growth learning measures to factor into teacher and administrator evaluations.

WCSD Government Affairs Director Lindsay Anderson also told the board she’s pleased with the introduction of Senate Bill 458 and hopeful for its speedy passage. The bill will inject $500 million into Nevada’s K-12 budget for the next biennium.

After an hour of discussion and debate, the trustees voted to approve new sex ed curricula for sixth grade students. It’s the first time this curriculum has been updated since 2003. Now, students will learn about healthy relationships, consent and how the internet and social media can affect people and relationships.

Both Vice President Andrew Caudill and Board Clerk Ellen Minetto voted against the new curricula, which parents must opt their children into. 

Caudill said he was uncomfortable with Planned Parenthood being a resource listed for students. 

Ellen Minetto was displeased that the district would not include Crisis Pregnancy Center in the resources—despite Sexuality, Health And Responsibility Education (S.H.A.R.E.) committee members explaining that the crisis centers very rarely employ medically licensed staff and most often focus on trying to talk girls and women into continuing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.

Perhaps the biggest news to come from the meeting was the trustees’ unanimous approval of plans to bring 100% of students back into classrooms full time at the start of next school year. Students who want to continue distance learning will have the option to do so at North Star Online School. All other students across every grade level are expected to be allowed back into buildings in the fall. 

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.