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UPDATED: ANWSD explains why transgender opponent allowed to speak at VUHS

VERGENNES — The Addison Northwest School District board and superintendent are defending their decision to allow Walt Heyer, an anti-trans activist, to give a public talk at Vergennes Union High School this coming Tuesday, June 20. The event is hosted by a group known as Parents Rights in Education.

School officials said they do not have the legal right to bar the group from using the building.

“Essentially, opening up the school for community use means that the school must take a neutral approach and may only deny an application for the use of its facilities in very limited circumstances,” ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule told the Independent an e-mail.

This Parents Rights in Education group is an Addison County cohort led by parents Tara Ferf Jentink and Tonya Meacham. It seems to be a part of a larger, multi-state organization by the same name. They were founded to oppose what they describe as the “politicization” of their children’s education. According to the national group’s website, they believe that the discussion of things like gender identity, pronouns, and more are all examples of “doctrine” that “is anti-American, anti-white, and anti-capitalist.”

Heyer, the speaker in question at Tuesday’s event, had gender reassignment surgery and lived as a transgender woman for eight years before he detransitioned in 1991. Ever since he has been outspoken in denouncing “transgenderism.” Heyer’s rhetoric and that of the Parents Rights in Education group have consistently been anti-trans and exclusionary by nature.

In response to this event there has been a great deal of pushback. Parents and members of the ANWSD community are organizing opposition to the talk happening at all. There is an open-letter petition being shared on social media calling for the cancellation of the event.

“Hosting this group in the school is directly opposed to the values that the ANWSD has professed and is likely to cause harm to the most vulnerable among the student community for whom you are responsible,” the petition states.

They also reference the ANWSD school board’s previous statements claiming its commitment to opposing “hate of all kinds” and to creating and sustaining an “equitable learning environment” within the community.

There has also been a Facebook event created calling for the protection of trans kids in the ANWSD. The event creator, Sydney Ansley of Ferrisburgh, is asking that members of the community come to Tuesday’s event to show their support to trans youth in the district. On Tuesday in Vergennes, there is planned a counter event called An Official Celebration of Queer Joy & Support Centering Trans Youth.

This counter event starts with sign making outside of VUHS at 5 p.m., with speeches happening at 6 p.m., and at 7 p.m. the protesters will march to the Vergennes city green where they will spend the rest of the evening celebrating what they are calling “Big Pride in the Little City” until 9 p.m.

The organizers wrote in a flyer distributed by the group Showing Up For Racial Justice, “We offer an alternative to hate and fear : SO MUCH LOVE TOWARDS OUR CHILDREN.”

This event will be the first ever Vergennes Pride. The community seems adamant in showing up for the queer and trans youth in the ANWSD in the face of this Parent Rights Group’s presence in the district.

Superintendent Soule sent an email to the VUHS student body yesterday and Soule and school board Chair John Stroup posted a statement for the ANWSD community on the district website explaining the administration’s position on the event.

“As per board policy, our facilities are open to any community group or organization, regardless of their beliefs,” Soule wrote. “This facility request was made by a parent in our school community and met the board policy criteria for approval.  We are unable to endorse or censor groups exercising their legal right to freedom of expression.”

She further elaborated in her email to the Independent, “If we canceled they would sue, and they would get an injunction to hold their activity anyway. We have been assured of that by attorneys and policy leaders in Montpelier.”

Soule explained that the district could deny use of the VUHS space if a group wanting to use it for activities what are prohibited by law, for example uses where alcoholic beverages or unlawful drugs are sold, distributed, consumed, promoted or possessed. It would be OK to deny use of the building if it interferes with school district maintenance or repair of facilities, or for activities that could give rise to a riot or public disturbance.

In both the community letter and email to the student body, she reiterated that the views and beliefs held by those hosting this event “do not reflect the views or positions of the District.”

The Independent has reached out to school board chair Stroup, but hadn’t heard back by the time this story was posted.

As an attempt to mitigate the harm this event will inevitably cause to youngsters who are wrestling with their gender identity and sexuality, the district on Friday, June 16, hosted listening circles in the VUHS library. The Friday morning circles aimed to support dialogue for any students who wanted to take part, Soule said.

“Our primary focus is on the safety and wellbeing of you all,” she said in her statement to the community. “Adults from Central Office, VUMHS staff, and Outright Vermont will be prepared to hold space for you.”

Friday was the last day students are attending school for this year.

All of Soule’s statements reiterate that her hands are tied and there is nothing more that can be done to keep Heyer and the Parents Rights in Education group’s harmful rhetoric from being boosted within the walls of VUHS.

What some opponents of this talk seem to be wondering is whether the risks that come with removing authorization for Parents Rights in Education to use the VUHS library, outweigh the risks that come with the talk happening at all.

“To be certain, removing the authorization for these hate mongers to use the school facilities will not be without its costs,” the petition states. “However the costs to the most vulnerable in our school will be far higher.”

In December 2020, the ANWSD school board issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to safe, civil and anti-racist schools. The board “emphatically” endorsed a learning environment and shared community “void of hate, bias, bigotry and racism.” Specifically, the board said that everyone, including community members, “must take seriously the need to speak openly against hate of all kinds.”

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