Kalli Edwards talked through her tears to a crowded room, the twentieth in a long line of disgruntled citizens. Before she took the podium, Edwards was reminded by another upset member of the community, Judi Wilson, that Fayette County is “not New York” and “not San Francisco.”
Edwards sat in line and listened to Flat Creek Baptist pastor Josh Saefkow, who encouraged everyone to remain committed to “the facts of gender: male and female.”
They heard the other citizens make their arguments, as Varner Holmes mentioned the “LGBTQ agenda” and Coweta County Board of Education member Linda Menk argued that the “indoctrination” of LGBTQ education should not be a school’s responsibility.
There was a discussion planned for a more than $200 million budget for Fayette County Public Schools during Monday night’s board of education meeting, but it took a backseat to the passionate and dissenting opinions on whether gender identity training for school nurses in Fayette County is acceptable.
The “outraged” feelings, as citizen Carol Springstein put it, towards training school employees to be well versed in LGBTQ terminology could have been a result of confusion from a June 7 story in The Citizen, according to Fayette County School System Superintendent Dr. Joseph Barrow.
Barrow said in a press release on June 2 that school nurses—there are 24 full-time nurses and six substitutes in the school system—received an introduction to “Understanding Gender and Supporting Transgender Students,” which was conducted by a representative from the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition. The presenter was also a facilitator for Welcoming Schools, which is a “professional development program dedicated to creating respectful and supportive elementary schools by embracing family diversity, creating LGBTQ- and gender-inclusive schools, preventing bias-based bullying, and supporting transgender and non-binary students,” according to its website, welcomingschools.org.
The aim of educating the school nurses was to help them better understand how to talk to families and children who may be dealing with the aforementioned issues to create “a safe, caring environment for our children,” Barrow said.
Randy Huff was the tenth citizen to address the crowd Monday night, and he said there is a problem with the process, referring to either the Georgia State Schools Coalition or Welcoming Schools—or both—as a “radical leftist group promoting the transgender movement.”
Edwards, a non-binary trans person and a member of the LBGBTQ community, was relieved last year to be given the right to use a gender-neutral bathroom.
“For the first time ever, I felt like I had a chance to be comfortable in my school,” Edwards said.
Edwards views training school nurses as a necessary next step and an opportunity for students who will come after—Edwards graduated high school this past spring—to feel like they can be safe when they come to school.
“I want for them to know that who they are is OK and they have support,” Edwards said. “That’s why I think it’s important for all staff within schools to get training.”
Edwards wasn’t the only citizen on Monday who spoke of experiencing discrimination in the past.
Steve Coffey, a former college professor and teacher for Fulton County Schools, said the same type of changes were not supported by teachers at the high school where he worked. He said it caused “repercussions for the faculty” in a “serious liberal” county, and it led to a tough moral predicament for people like him, who are Christian.
“Because I was a Christian, I was harassed mercilessly,” Coffey said.
While a majority of citizens lashed out against the training the nurses received, plenty of others agreed with Edwards. In a Facebook post, Fayette County Board of Education member Leonard Presberg said, “It both saddens and infuriates me that people would be against our nurses getting information so they can help children who are often the most in need.”
At the meeting, Laurie Guay brought 30 rainbow pins and ran out quicker than she expected.
“I thought for sure I was going to leave here tonight with a purse full of them,” Guay said.
Billy Holder, father of a gender non-conforming child, delivered statistics that showed just how many transgender students face bullying in schools. Holder said one-third of the bullying instances come from teachers and administrators.
Rebecca Pierce Powell, the mother of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, said it made a positive difference once she met with teachers and educated them on her son’s needs and the ways in which he communicated with others. She believes a similar result could be achieved with gender identity education.
After Powell spoke, Sara Van Etten, a mother of two daughters at Inman Elementary and one of the final speakers of the night tried to get everyone on the same side.
“When these students come to the school and reach out to the nurses,” Van Etten said, “it’s vital that the nurses understand the terminology that the kids are going to be using to describe themselves.”
Although Van Etten and Edwards were applauded after their speeches, the other side was even more vocal. Menk was showered with amens immediately after saying, “This needs to stop. These children belong to the parents. They do not belong to the government.”
It’s unclear exactly how many citizens at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting realized that gender identity education would not be a part of the curriculum at any grade level. However, Barrow is looking at an even larger issue.
“I really hope that we can come to a point,” Barrow said, “where we can talk about what we’re for rather than what we’re against.”
*Correction: the print version of the story misspelled the names of Josh Saefkow and Steve Coffey.
Ed. Note: Christopher Dunn contributed to reporting this story. Graphic by Christopher Fairchild.