The Kern High School District’s latest board meeting became particularly contentious when board members heard public comment on two topics: a California mandate that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 and state protections for the LGBTQ+ community.
State guidance is increasingly the object of frustration for many attending local school board meetings.
As the beginning of the school year approached, many spoke against universal masking inside K-12 schools, although a handful of proponents have spoken in favor of the state’s strict guidelines.
During many of these school board meetings, other state guidance has also been the subject of fierce community debate, such as state laws protecting LGBTQ+ students and an increased focus on diversity and ethnic studies.
For instance, in August, the Bakersfield City School District saw people from several churches fill its chambers to protest a state-mandated library available for teachers who want to address LGBTQ+ bullying in the classroom.
These community members speaking at school board meetings express frustration at school boards’ insistence that they must comply with what they consider objectionable mandates.
Terry Maxwell, a radio host and a former Bakersfield city councilman, urged the KHSD board Monday night to give up state funding in lieu of going along with the upcoming vaccine mandate. He said forgoing funding that might provide for football, basketball and extracurricular activities is worth it if the school district can make its own decisions.
“Is this board autonomous or not?” he asked. “I’ve come to the conclusion you’re not.”
Anger at board spills over
There was a sense of anger and frustration among the crowd speaking against the recently announced vaccine mandate for students. Attendees booed loudly during a brief board report by Associate Superintendent of Business Mike Zulfa that mentioned the mandate announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday.
Board President Jeff Flores asked for quiet the first of several times during the meeting.
“We didn’t adopt this, this is the governor, this is the governor,” Flores said.
At one point, the board took a 10-minute break and walked out when one community member took the microphone out of turn and refused to relinquish it.
Flores called up someone to speak on another topic, and Kori Hanners rose to speak. He told her they had moved onto funding.
“No, we want to talk about the vaccine mandates,” Hanners said. “And I’m going to go ahead and speak to the audience, because I know you don’t care. No, I will speak.”
The short district proclamation in favor of LGBTQ+ protections also brought out a large crowd and more than 45 minutes of comment — mostly opposed — from community members, pastors, parents and staff members.
After public comment concluded, trustee Cynthia Brakeman said she was “embarrassed to sit here and look at this audience.”
“When people who had an opinion other than yours got up to talk, you bullied them, you made comments, you jeered, you laughed,” she said. “This isn’t the first time it happened.”
Brakeman said she regretted not saying something when recently graduated students spoke up about LGBTQ+ issues at a KHSD meeting in June.
“You were rude,” she told the audience. “You were rude not just to adults, but to students. You were rude to Kern High students.”
Brakeman said she felt the proclamation was necessary — evident even by the behavior of some at the meeting.
“A proclamation that recognizes their participation in this community is apparently needed because we don’t respect them,” Brakeman said.
One man went up to the podium, before he was told to sit down, and said: “I’m embarrassed that you are chastising the people that hired you when you are epic failures at your job.”
Against the vaccine mandate
There was nothing on Kern High School District’s meeting agenda about Newsom’s announcement that once the FDA fully approves the COVID-19 vaccine, it will be a requirement for students the following term. But it brought out a crowd eager to speak. Many said the mandate was government overreach.
Sammy Wells, a junior at Centennial High who created Kern County Turning Point USA, called the vaccines “stupid” and complained that the board members were “irrelevant” and hadn’t been in school since the time of Moses.
“The parents get to choose what their children get to take, not the government,” he said.
Dewey Compton, a KHSD teacher, said he believed that immunity proven through an antibody test should be available as an alternative to the vaccine requirement.
Maria Salas said she didn’t appreciate the pressure for her son to get vaccinated. She her son was quarantined when he was exposed to a positive COVID case during sports, while other students who were vaccinated didn’t need to quarantine. She said she felt like these guidelines didn’t make sense and it put pressure on her son to get the vaccine.
Salas also said she didn’t appreciate that during daily announcements at school, students would promote vaccination events.
“That is bringing division into our home,” she said. “I know it’s student-led, but that doesn’t make it right.”
The proclamation before the KHSD board states that the district is committed to providing a safe school environment that allows all students, including its LGBTQ+ students, equal access and opportunities in the district’s academic, extracurricular and educational support programs.
It went on to state that LGBTQ+ students, staff and community enrich classrooms, activities, schools and communities and that LGBTQ+ students “deserve to learn in a safe environment free from discrimination, harassment, intimidation, bullying, and harm.”
Trustees Brakeman, David Manriquez and Janice Graves voted in favor of the proclamation read by Superintendent Bryon Schaefer. Flores voted against it. Trustee Bryan Batey was not in attendance.
Kids First Kern founder Shannon Boren spoke out against it and called on the board to form stronger alliances with parents. The organization also asked its members to reach out to the board about the item.
“School boards need to focus on academics and they should be addressing the learning loss the overwhelming majority of our students suffered from virtual learning — not catering to special interest politics,” said a message on the group’s Facebook page.
Stephanie Hall said her daughter was bothered that a transgender student was changing in the girls’ locker room. Her daughter felt uncomfortable and had been given the option to change periods or change in another area. She felt that the transgender student should not be allowed in the girls’ changing area.
Wendell Vinson of Canyon Hills Assembly of God supported this view. He also spoke against the proclamation, which he called a “celebratory proclamation of a specific sexual behavior and cultural view.” He said that a straightforward anti-bullying statement would be a stronger statement.
Some staff members spoke in favor of the resolution. Monica Munn said that as an adviser of the Gay Straight Alliance, she would read it to her club members.
Olivia Garrison, a KHSD teacher who said she identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, was booed when she said that LGBTQ+ information in classes creates a safer environment for LGBTQ+ students. She said these students hear slurs on a daily basis.