Prior to the August 1st Fowlerville Board of Education meeting, Stand Against Extremism LivCo (SAGE) held a peaceful protest in response to the district’s ‘content neutral’ policy.
The family-friendly event was an opportunity for networking and discussion, as well as “bubbles, music, and fun.” Organizers explained that the ultimate goal of the demonstration was to “help keep our public schools in Livingston County inclusive and accepting of all.”
Julie Ohashi of Stand Against Extremism LivCo pointed out that there were more passing cars that honked in support of the protest than they’d initially anticipated, and more supporters than opponents.
The Fowlerville Board’s decision to implement a content neutral policy has been viewed as a deliberate attack on the already marginalized LGBTQ+ community, as Pride flags in particular have been at the center of the debate. The official language of Proposal 8805 states that the only displays permissible are those that promote athletics, post-secondary education or opportunities (such as universities or the military), or are part of a temporary unit of study.
“Neutrality in education does not exist,” said Meg Koenemann, a Fowlerville parent. “We are either training kids to comply with whatever they are told and therefore forcing everyone to conform to a predetermined norm, or we are encouraging and allowing students to develop critical thinking skills. There is no in-between.”
Many attendees also spoke during the meeting’s call to the public. However, as one student pointed out, many of those who spoke in opposition had been to the past three meetings and their voices remained unheard by the board.
Longtime resident Mike Miller added that “anything we say here seems to be a waste of time… most people have their minds made up before you sit down and start the meeting. And it’s kind of disheartening.”
Joseph Simmons of Handy Township referred back to a comment made during the call to the public on July 18th, where several supporters of the proposal dismissed the opposition, asserting that the United States was one of the safest places for the LGBTQ+ community. Simmons, a veteran, agreed with the statement, having traveled the world during his military service.
“I’ve been to a lot of places where it is not safe to be LGBTQ,” Simmons explained. “One thing that I’ve found in those places where it’s not safe to be part of the LGBT community is that the first thing they do is ban things like the display of Pride flags,” Simmons explained. “Unfortunately, that is what I see happening here. Small scale? Sure. But it’s the first step.”
Simmons and his family are relatively new to the area, and he explained that his family’s decision to settle in Fowlerville was based on their perception that it was a “fairly accepting and reasonable community.” He added that he was “distressed to see that that may not be the case.”
“I’ve been to a lot of places around the world, I’ve been to a lot of places in the United States, and I will say that unfortunately, sometimes small towns breed small minds, and it’s very disheartening to see that happen here,” Simmons concluded.
The policy has already been detrimental to the community of LGBTQ+ students at Fowlerville High. Betsy Ording – a Fowlerville teacher and supervisor of the FHS Umbrella Club – informed the board that, within 24 hours of the last board meeting, there were nine separate cyberbullying incidents against LGBTQ+ students. The social media messages ranged from gloating over the new board policy to hateful and derogatory comments.
Superintendent Matt Stuard later clarified that administration and IT had been made aware of the incidents. Upon further investigation, it was determined that none of the messages were sent via school devices and therefore did not violate district policy. As a result, the district didn’t take any disciplinary action, instead opting to inform the parents of the few students they could identify.
While the board didn’t provide further comment on Proposal 8805, it has become apparent that the issue is far from resolved. Representatives from SAGE have stated that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sent letters to both Hartland and Fowlerville school districts, though it remains uncertain whether the boards have received the notices at this time.
The ACLU’s letter to the Fowlerville Board of Education explains that the recent proposal is in direct violation of the civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ+ students (as interpreted by the Michigan Supreme Court). Additionally, the letter addressed the Board’s assertion that the proposal was prompted by a parent complaint and solidified due to an influx of parent emails following the July 11th board meeting.
“There may be some people in the district who are not in support of recognizing LGBTQ+ students and affording them equal treatment as other students. Their voices may be loud and their vitriol and other tactics can be felt as threatening,” the letter explains. “However, that is not a reason for the District to back down in its commitment to diversity and inclusion; that is not a reason for the District to no longer permit the Pride Flag and safe space stickers to be displayed by staff. A heckler’s veto, no matter how loud or threatening, is not a legitimate basis for overriding the free speech rights of the Fowlerville School District, nor to prevent Fowlerville from doing what is right for all their students.”
Patricia Wood of Fowlerville noted that the Livingston County Republican Party took credit for the proposal, with GOP Chair Jennifer Smith issuing a statement via Facebook following the board’s decision. Wood pointed out that it has become overwhelmingly apparent that this trend is not merely a local instance, but rather a localized manifestation of far-right political extremism.
In a statement to GIGO News, Wood explained that connecting with neighboring districts has been an empowering experience.
“There’s a growing number of parents from across the county who are catching onto the disturbing and disruptive agenda of far-right activists and they are starting to speak out. SAGE recognizes that coming together, collaborating, and taking action is what it’s going to take to keep our schools inclusive.”