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CMS response to NC parents’ rights law sparks praise and calls for defiance

CMS board member Melissa Easley talks Tuesday about her personal experience and the challenges LGBTQ students face.
CMS board livestream
CMS board member Melissa Easley talks Tuesday about her personal experience and the challenges LGBTQ students face.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board approved four policies to comply with North Carolina’s new parents’ bill of rights law Tuesday in a meeting marked by passion and personal disclosures.

Senate Bill 49 became law last week. It spells out 12 pages of requirements for public schools, such as creating new processes for parents to review and challenge textbooks and requiring educators to notify parents if their children want to use a different name or pronouns.

CMS board members heard from some people who celebrated the changes as a victory for parents.

Cindy Decker said she’s hearing from parents and other family members who “expect to feel more welcome, less intimidated, less frustrated, and ultimately a stronger desire for involvement in supporting their child’s school.”

“I believe in time there will be a groundswell of parental involvement coming from the community, the kind of support that teachers need so desperately,” Decker told the board. “So I encourage you to let this law serve you, unburden you from focusing on social, moral and personal issues … to free up your ability to educate our kids in the academic disciplines that prepare them for a successful future.”

But they heard from others who said the law will deprive LGBTQ students of the chance to be open about their identity and find support at school when their own parents are hostile.

The new policies say students can’t participate in sex education unless their parents give permission and ban “instruction on gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality” in grades K-4.

“I can promise you that books aren’t turning your kids gay. The truth is that your kid is born queer,” said Rachael Blizewski. “It’s genetic. … Letting kids have access to these challenged books lets them know that being queer is normal, and how their bodies work and function.”

One speaker, CMS parent Jen Bourne, urged CMS to join with other districts “and consider taking legal action against the NCGA.” She said if CMS is going to give parents more rights, she should have the right to refuse to participate in North Carolina’s standardized testing.

Personal stories shared

It wasn’t just members of the public who shared stories of being harassed and discriminated against because of being gay, trans or queer.

Board member Melissa Easley voted against the policy changes after an emotional disclosure about her own family being harassed. “These things have been happening to us because of my husband’s gender fluidity and my bisexuality,” she said.

Easley, a former teacher, said she understands that CMS has to obey state law but “these laws are wrong. I vow tonight to work within the law to right these wrongs.”

Several other board members criticized the law, saying it fuels political conflict and distracts educators.

“School is about to start. We should be excited,” board member Dee Rankin said. “But we’re here arguing, fighting about these small things that are already occurring in our district.”

“I am concerned about the harm that it might cause to students and the extra burden that it places upon our teachers,” said board Chair Elyse Dashew. “And yet I’m more concerned about the harm that would come to the district if we defied the law.”

Easley and board member Jennifer De La Jara voted against revising three existing policies to comply with the law, and member Summer Nunn joined them in voting against a new student health policy.

“The reality is, this is going to set us back on some student outcomes,” she said. “So it is our job to quickly adapt to this and create safe spaces, inclusive spaces for all of our kids.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.