The final Surrey school board meeting of the year ended abruptly Wednesday evening, after a group of parents and other adult anti-SOGI protesters disrupted question period by yelling through a megaphone and calling for trustees’ resignations.
The group held up posters and wore labeled clothing protesting the inclusive framework of teaching in schools.
Some teachers and trustees, who described the protest as “aggressive” and “shocking” had to be escorted to their cars by police following the meeting, saying they felt unsafe.
Part of education in B.C. is the implementation of SOGI 123, an educational resource that teachers can use to assist their teaching about queer topics and support queer students’ learning.
But not everyone is supportive of these lessons being included in public education.
A group of parents and other adults have attended the last few months’ regular board meetings and voiced their concerns about SOGI during question period, but board chair Laurie Larsen said that at the June 14 meeting, the situation escalated.
At a previous meeting, “it wasn’t even a parent of our district, a woman stood up and started graphically telling stories that were inappropriate for anybody to hear and I told her to either ask a question or sit down. And then next meeting, the group was a little larger,” Larsen explained to Peace Arch News.
“This particular group, the anti-SOGI group has been visiting every district throughout the province. They’ve been disrupting almost every meeting and it’s been volatile for all of the districts that have had to deal with it.”
Teachers and other district staff got wind of the protest ahead of the meeting, prompting educators to show up in colourful outfits to show support for the rainbow community. Officers from Surrey RCMP were also present outside the board room.
“As a board, we were prepared for the worst,” Larsen said.
Accusations of pornographic books in schools, making religious students feel marginalized and personal attacks aimed at the trustees and the district were among the comments made during question period, as well as being written on signs.
“Some of the signs were hateful – about the board killing babies,” Larsen recalled. At the beginning of the meeting, she asked everyone who had a sign to remove it from the room, quoting a policy that no signage of any kind is allowed.
“They were as determined to keep the signs as I was in removing them, which they finally did.”
During question period, a majority of the individuals who spoke used the opportunity to discuss SOGI, including parents who felt their children were being “marginalized” because of their religion, and another who questioned the validity of gender identity without asking a question.
At that point, Larsen ended question period seven minutes early.
Protesters once again grabbed their posters and used a megaphone to express the “shame” they felt towards the trustees, who immediately exited the room.
“They all should resign,” one woman yelled.
Some individuals approached teachers at the meeting, yelling in their faces and making comments about drag queens and other queer identities. PAN witnessed one teacher walk away from an interaction with tears in her eyes.
Jatinder Bir, president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association, said it was “shocking” to see the protest unfold.
“I had a man in my face, wagging his finger at me with no intent of wanting to listen to anything,” she said, adding that the interaction reminded her of instances of racism that she has dealt with.
“I will have conversations with kids and read books that are developmentally appropriate so they understand that families may look different. Some families may have two moms or may have two dads,” said Anne McNamee, a teacher-librarian in the district.
“One of the things said last night was that we’re trying to make kids trans. Absolutely not, but we do want kids to know that they can be who they are at school and their families can be who they are at school and we will accept them. That’s why we were there last night.”
Near the end of the board meeting, but before question period, Larsen read aloud a statement on behalf of the board emphasizing its support of inclusive education and said that public engagement at the monthly board meetings is encouraged, but safety of everyone present needs to be prioritized.
“During the past few board meetings, it has become clear that certain members of our community are not interested in respectfully engaging with the board and are instead using our question period as a platform to spread hate or misinformation,” the statement reads.
It went on to say that constructive dialogue and hearing diverse perspectives is important to them, “but continually having individuals share hateful rhetoric and spread misinformation will not be accepted.”
If meetings continue to include “vulgar” or “harmful” language from the audience, individuals may receive a warning, be removed from the meeting, or authorities may even become involved in some cases.
With regard to SOGI specifically, the board states that student and staff safety is paramount and they “will not tolerate any form of hate speech, discrimination, or attempts to spread misinformation that undermines the rights and well-being of all members of our school communities, including members of the 2SLGBTQ+ community.”
Larsen said that the group of people protesting are not just against SOGI, but have spoken against vaccines, with one member wearing an anti-vaccine T-shirt at the meeting.
“A lot of what was said last night was hard for me to not respond to, but once you react, that’s what they’re waiting for,” she said.
Larsen charged that the people who are against SOGI are misinformed and have likely never visited the SOGI 123 website, a resource she describes as a framework to help all students feel safe.
The board will meet with Supt. Mark Pearmain to discuss the situation and make a plan for future meetings.
The meetings “could be going virtual, that’s one option, it could be not having question period for a while and just asking people to submit their questions,” Larsen said.
“It is the question period that gives the public a chance to ask questions, so it would be a shame if we had to just remove that for a couple meetings. That seems to be where the megaphone comes out and all these things… It really annoyed me because there were parents in the audience that had questions that needed to be answered and it is question period, it’s not supposed to be a platform (for) political issues.”
The board chair encouraged any parents who did not get the chance to ask their question to contact the board or district.