Breaking down the ‘culture war’ in Virginia Beach that’s divided the school board and community

For weeks, the Virginia Beach School Board has debated if and how the division should react to students who are transgender. For months, it has debated about if and how access to some books in school libraries should be restricted. Before that, there were tense debates about a mask mandate during the pandemic and a proposal to ban firearms at board meetings.

The Virginia Beach board largely stands alone in Hampton Roads in the number and intensity of debates over social and cultural issues. Other area school divisions have either had no such debates or only small flare ups — none lasting months as in Virginia Beach.

Several board members said they believe there is little way to avoid it.

“We’re elected officials, so I don’t know if you can completely keep politics out of it unfortunately,” member Victoria Manning said.

Board member Jennifer Franklin said this could partly be because of the size of Virginia Beach and the number of residents “very active in politics.”

“Education has become, unfortunately, a hotbed to be able to bring those politics and make waves within your communities,” Franklin said. “I personally don’t love that.”

Board Chair Trenace Riggs said the debates, long as they might be, do not affect the board’s ability to support the school division. However, she said it does take time for the administrators to gather the information needed to answer any questions that come up during these discussions.

Many people in the community are ready to take on such matters. Resident Paula Chang said these are all part of the “cultural national discussion.”

“It is time, because it is relevant,” she said.

Much of it could come to head Monday when the board is expected to vote on an LGBTQ resolution “reaffirming” the division’s commitment to anti-discrimination and proposed library policy changes which would create lists of books containing “sexually explicit content” for parents.

As of Friday afternoon, Monday’s agenda is packed with items that have stirred up debate in past meetings, namely board member Jessica Owens’ resolution “Affirmation of Commitment to Nondiscrimination and Anti-Harassment of LGBTQ+ Youth and Adults in the VBCPS Educational Environment” and Manning’s proposed changes to the library policy, which would create lists of library books containing materials deemed “sexually explicit” in order to be shared with parents.

Owens said she brought the resolution to the board in response to a growing number of high school students and community members coming to each meeting since September, urging the board to reject the model policies.

“They are asking the board to kind of let them know that they are heard and valued and safe in our district,” Owens said. “I think it’s hard to ignore, for the six months that we did … so this is in response to the community requests, the student requests, without a political agenda behind that.”

The model policies were released by Youngkin’s administration last year, effectively reversing the state’s stance on the treatment of transgender students in public schools, though no further directives have been issued since the end of the public comment period.

Owens said the resolution, which states the division “will adopt no policies in violation of state or federal law” in order to protect students’ and families’ rights, was not in response to the state’s model policies. She told The Virginian-Pilot that if it is determined the model policies do violate state or federal law, as Virginia’s Joint Commission on Administrative Rules has suggested, then it would be up to the board to ensure the board members “abide by the specific laws in place for anti-discrimination and the Human Rights Act.”

Already, at least 50 students plan to speak Monday, according to a release from Emily LaBar, a First Colonial High School senior. About 20 students plan to rally in front of the building prior to the meeting.

A handful of community members also displayed signs with messages such as “Girls teams are for girls” and “Protecting woman’s rights is protecting female sports” in front of the building before the May 9 meeting. The first time the proposed resolution was shared, there had been confusion about its impact on athletics and if it would allow transgender students to compete on teams aligning with the gender identity. Owens said that was not the intent, as those rules are determined by the Virginia High School League, and it has since been clarified.

Also for the board to finally take a stance on are Manning’s proposed changes to the library policies, which would provide parents with a list of materials containing sexually explicit content. Manning has pushed to address concerns about potentially inappropriate content in school libraries for over a year.

“I do think that that’s extremely important to protect children,” Manning said. “…There are children who if they read about some of these very sexually explicit topics, they can be traumatized.”

Name calling from all sides has made headlines in the past. One school board meeting in August grew heated over “porn peddling” accusations from community members about the kinds of books available in the libraries. On the flip side, former school board member Laura Hughes had said those raising concerns about the books were called “Nazis.”

Manning has remained steadfast on the issue of “pornographic” books in schools, even with the constant back and forth.

“If people believe that notifying parents of sexually explicit content is divisive, then that’s their opinion,” she said.

She also said the proposed policy changes are “not exactly what I would imagine and would like,” but takes into consideration the input from the board and the public.

Many library media specialists have come to meetings to share concerns and struggles in the face of the scrutiny about what is in school libraries. Becky Feld, a Virginia Beach library media specialist, said during the May 23 meeting that librarians already comply with board direction in ensuring the collections are diverse and appropriate for their student population. She urged the board to vote down Manning’s proposed changes because she felt they could have negative impacts on the collections.

“This policy equates to censorship that will silence and fail to represent marginalized students,” Feld said.

However, advocates for the change say it will support parents and ensure transparency regarding what libraries contain. Having a list, many have said, will make it easier for parents to determine what books to which they might want to restrict their children’s access. Chang said she has heard librarians’ concerns about the amount of work it would take to review each of the books to provide the list, but added, “nobody offers another solution.”

Manning’s proposed policy changes have been criticized on social media platforms and during public comment as politically and religiously motivated.

She declined to comment in response.

Manning has been a central figure in these debates, bringing forward the proposed policy changes and with her connection to the political action committee, Students First VA. She has shared a list of books found in middle and high school libraries which the organization determined to contain sexually explicit content.

With about 100 titles flagged as containing “sexually explicit” material, content such as “condemnation of Christianity,” “mental health issues,” “controversial religious commentary,” “alternate sexualities,” “alternate gender ideologies” and “controversial racial commentary” also is listed.

One title, “Black Flamingo” is noted for “sensationalizing and normalizing dressing in drag and transgenderism” and “promotes CRT ideology and contains several racist commentaries.” Manning said the book also contains sexually explicit materials.

Manning declined to comment on why the list included mentions of topics in addition to sexually explicit content. She did say that Students First VA provided the list and the division would not use it if the policy changes are approved.

Likewise, Owens’ resolution has been called out for singling one group of students over another and being unnecessary. There is already a policy on the books prohibiting discrimination of LGBTQ students.

At the center of it all is the concept of “parental rights.” Becky Hay, a Virginia Beach parent, said in the May 23 meeting that the board is looking at “taking responsibility and authority away from parents and placing them upon minor children.” She said schools should be putting parents’ authority first as students are not emotional or mentally mature enough to make all decisions for themselves.

Recently, the temperature of the debate appears to have risen.

Last month, resident Melissa Lukeson requested from the division through the Freedom of Information Act “all email communications pertaining to the resolution affirming VBCPS commitment to non-discrimination against LGBTQ+ youth.” Days later at the May 9 meeting, she said she put in the FOIA request to “identify the people who were dumb enough to put their bigotry into the public record for the world to see, including but not limited to their employers.”

Lukeson went on to say that as a business owner, she “would like to know if I had homophobic and transphobic employees.” At the following meeting, Lukeson argued her comments were not threatening, even if people did not like what she had to say. She said the school board attorney was asked to review her comments, but did not determine they were threats.

Lukeson told The Virginian-Pilot the intent behind her FOIA request was to remind the community that when they contact their comments are in the public record. As an employer, she said she would like to see if her employees made “homophobic” or “transphobic” comments.

She said she did receive the emails but has not done anything with them.

Later, Manning and board members Michael Callan, Kathleen Brown, Carolyn Weems and David Culpepper put out a statement “disavowing threatening and intimidating tactics against members of the public.” The statement does not name Lukeson, but quoted her comments. According to the statement, several members of the public felt “threatened and intimidated” by the comment.

It stated, “It was communicated to us that a number of other speakers ended up leaving without making public comment, not feeling safe to exercise their First Amendment rights.”

“We’ve had lots of speakers that come up and are incredibly passionate,” Franklin said. “Sometimes that passion turns into rhetoric that is not helpful sometimes.”

Tim Anderson, a Virginia Beach lawyer and candidate for the state Senate, made a FOIA request later that same month to “any emails or correspondence opposing the removal of any book that is suggested to contain graphic sexually explicit material that is in a VBCPS school library. Received or authored by any Virginia Beach school board member or VBCPS school employee.” He has since narrowed his request and had not received any responsive documents as of Friday.

Anderson said the difference between his request and Lukeson’s is that he was not planning to share what he received and only hoped to use the information to “understand the disconnect” in the arguments, because he thinks parents having more authority over what their students can access should not be so controversial.

He said he has pledged to bring forward legislation that would provide an exemption to FOIA that would allow all correspondence to public officials to remain private.

Lukeson said she has no plans to back down.

“My comments and my dialogue can definitely be controversial or taken as being inflammatory for sure,” Lukeson said. “I choose my words very carefully … because it seems to be what gets their attention.”

Owens said the debates have not necessarily been productive, though she supports the public’s ability to address the board. The vote on Monday could change things though.

“I don’t think people are changing their minds or changing their positions on these issues, so I’m looking forward to voting on these things and moving forward because it seems to have kind of dragged out some of these topics,” Owens said.

Superintendent Aaron Spence recently announced his plans to leave Virginia Beach to be the Loudoun County Public Schools superintendent. The timeline of when he will resign and who the board might appoint in the interim as they begin the search process for Spence’s replacement is still unclear.

Amidst the long-running debates, much of the board’s and administration’s responsibilities to keep the school running and ensure students are learning are still being fulfilled. Administrative appointments are being made. Policies are reviewed and updated as needed. The budget for the upcoming year was approved unanimously in March.

Spence said from an administrative perspective, the division has remained focused and continues to do good work. However, much of the vitriol in the community and on the school board does not go unnoticed by the school system’s staff.

He said national surveys have shown politics does play a factor in teachers’ morale and how they feel about public education.

So when the community calls teachers “groomers, Marxists or indoctrinators,” Spence said, it affects people’s desire to pursue the profession.

“It’s really important we think about, in our community, the future of public education,” Spence said. “We’re already seeing fewer people going into teacher preparation programs across the country.”

Virginia Beach Education Association President Kathleen Slinde wrote in a statement that school employees have felt “June-tired” very early in the year ever since the pandemic. She wrote that hearing the division and the rhetoric used in these discussions is “disheartening.”

“I believe that many education professionals at all levels are feeling like the public thinks the work we do can be done by any individual brought in,” Slinde wrote. “The level of professional and trade training and experience is being devalued by the conversations around political issues.”

She explained the staff go through training and learn about “best practices” for becoming successful teachers who are able to help students with their intellectual, social and emotional development. The teachers specialize in their fields in order to better accomplish these goals.

And when asked if these long-running debates at the school board level help staff in fulfilling their duties, Slinde wrote, “No.”

Kelsey Kendall,