by Janet Stephenson
The California Department of Education (CDE), in 2018, set forth guidelines on how to work with communities when facing implementation of new laws on sexual education. In their publication, HIV/AIDS Prevention Instruction Guidelines – Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Instruction, it states, “Almost all religious faiths have specific teachings about sexual practices. Care must be taken to ensure that public educators do not discount these teachings.” It further states that religious values “can be affirmed while taking care not to endorse any specific religious faith or belittle students who have no religious practice.” The guidelines also affirm that “The family is the primary educator of the child and provides a forum for open discussion within which the student can compare new information and skills with the values and teachings of his or her family, religion, and culture,” and “[t]he faith community or other cultural institutions define the context within which personal and family learning may take place. Institutions may identify and acknowledge a variety of family, religious, or cultural values to be explored and considered by students.”
As the (CVUSD) school board moves forward in selecting curriculum to implement state laws, the question arises – do we have board members that follow these guidelines? Or do we have board members that, instead of taking care to “ensure that public educators do not discount these teachings,” are posting statements that assert that conservative religious values of families, who come from Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, are intolerant, menacing, and malicious extremism? That they are closed minded transphobes from which our community’s children must be protected from? From statements and articles posted on President Connolly’s school board Facebook page, when it comes to following the California Department of Education guidelines, our school board has a long way to go.
It’s no secret that the president of the CVUSD school board, Betsy Connolly, has made remarks in school board meetings, and has been posting and reposting statements on her school board Facebook page, which puts down parents in conservative religious communities. She has admonished them that they are living in the fifties, accused them directly and indirectly, in posts and selected reposts, of bigotry, transphobia and extremism simply because they don’t fall in line with her way of thinking, or her imagining of what religion should be.
In board meetings, these parents that she devalues have tried to voice concerns about the impact of future curriculum which teaches too much, too soon, a new graphic sexual education and new social theories to their children that conflict with their religious practices. They have asked the district to consider curriculum that ensures that their own diverse teachings are not discounted, and have even brought to the attention of the board alternative methods of implementing state law.
However, these concerns fall on deaf ears with the majority of the board, especially the president. Connolly has irrationally imagined a conspiracy where these concerned parents are all followers of Sandee Everett, the only conservative member of the board, and can’t fathom that they are speaking up, on their own, for the rights of their own children. Her unprofessional treatment of Sandee Everett in board meetings, to the point of silencing her, has reached cringing levels of autocracy and her comments reflect that she cares little for the CDE’s mandate that she should ensure that religious teachings and practices are not discounted.
Children of diverse religious backgrounds and ethnicities, according to the state of California, are in a protected class. However, it would appear that, for Connolly, the crime of raising children in a different way, with different values than hers, is grounds for derision and exclusion, and reason enough to ignore their protected class status. Connolly does not appear to care about the California Department of Education recommendations, and when she talks about accepting children, she seems to exclude children from conservative religious families. Those children have no right to consideration in her eyes, and their parents must be put down until they are silenced. She discounts their teachings publicly, openly, and proudly, feigning inclusion as a basis for her exclusion.
Betsy Connolly, in her role as CVUSD president is supposed to be “leading the Board’s advocacy efforts to build support within the local community,” and according to the CDE, should be a leader that does not discount the faiths of others. However, from statements made by Connolly on her Facebook page, it would seem that religions must pass a sort of purity test to escape the board president’s ire and disdain. They must have a progressive agenda and share her values, or they will be discounted, mocked, and ridiculed. Such faiths are not religious, they are “religious.” The parents of children in unacceptable faiths have been labeled extremist, menacing, malicious, closed minded, and transphobes for following the teachings of their faith and have no business speaking up in board meetings. Of course, she can’t censor them in the meetings, but she can discount them, through lectures from the dais, and statements and articles reposted on her school board Facebook page.
Whereas religious parents are speaking out about concerns around future curricula, Connolly gets personal and speaks about the parents. Seeing her attacks on them, they keep trying to redirect the conversation to the curricula and the consideration of all protected classes, both religious and LGBTQ. However, she and others on the board are single minded in purpose – mow over conservative religious families, discount and mock their teachings, and promote only one protected class at the expense of others.
Connolly’s closed minded approach is not what is required by state law, and the recommendations by the CDE are clear that districts should be sensitive to the communities they are serving. There is flexibility in the selection of future curricula that will take care of the needs of both the conservative religious communities and the LGBTQ communities.
In a phrase, no child needs to be left behind, but apparently, if the majority of the school board has anything to say about it, conservative religious children of diverse faiths will not only be left behind, but effectively pushed out of the public school system. They have already pulled a family life committee that was forming to review new curricula, because they didn’t see a need for it. The family life committee was to be made up of doctors, nurses, teachers, parents, and religious leaders to give input on proposed curricula. However, at a board meeting the majority members voiced that they didn’t care for participation of religious leaders on the committee, which led to questioning if they wanted to have the committee at all. After that, the posting for applications to be part of the committee,was shut down and the board has remained silent as to its reasons.
The board members’ animosity and disdain for parents and children of diverse conservative religious communities is an attitude that they are entitled to in our country. However, when the board president posts derogatory comments toward these communities as an elected public service official, she has crossed a line. Connolly’s statements, and what she chooses to post, has affirmed that she does not, and will not, represent all students within the district and does not have their best interests at heart. The ones who are a danger to children of this district are not conservative religious families who have expressed a desire to find a way forward for everyone, including the LGBTQ community, but Betsy Connolly and the majority of the board, who, instead of choosing a path of building bridges, has chosen a destructive path of single minded ambition and burning bridges, no matter who gets hurt in the aftermath.
The majority of the current school board which claims to have been elected on a platform of integrity and inclusion, have instead been united in a policy of exclusion and divisiveness. From their choices to partner with Conejo Schools Foundation in a summer school that excludes lower income and financially struggling students from getting ahead in classes to taunting conservative religious parents with the possibility of selecting curriculum that could drive them out of the school district, they continue to show disdain, time and again, in words and deeds, towards students, and their families, who could truly benefit and thrive if only they had a school board that truly believed in inclusion for all protected classes and gave equal opportunities in education, instead of driving students out of the district.
It would be a breath of fresh air if we could have real leadership in the district that could lead advocacy efforts to build support within the local community, instead of dividing it; advocated for lower income and struggling students, instead of placing obstacles in their way; and ensured that public educators did not discount the teachings of diverse faiths, instead of promoting active antagonism to them. Conservative religious parents who have spoken at board meetings have advocated against bullying, promoted kindness, and expressed a desire to meet the needs of all children in the Conejo Valley Unified School District. For taking the time to express their concerns, they are rewarded with lectures, insults, and derision by the majority board members. This needs to stop, or the community will continue to be divided, egged on by the apparent religious prejudice of the CVUSD school board president and majority members.
Janet Stephenson is a resident of Thousand Oaks
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal