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Hundreds of parents demonstrated outside the Montgomery County Board of Educations meeting Tuesday demanding that Marylands largest school district allow them to shield their children from books and lessons that contain LGBTQ+ characters.
The crowd was filled largely with Muslim and Ethiopian Orthodox parents, who say the school system is violating their religious rights protected under the First Amendment by not providing an opt-out. Three families have filed a lawsuit against the school system.
The books that feature LGBTQ+ characters are a part of a supplemental curriculum the school system launched this academic year. It adds titles for every grade level, including kindergarten to fifth grade, where the curriculum has been the most controversial. A few months ago, a handful of parents had spoken at board meetings about the issue, but the demonstrations have expanded to hundreds. Many of them declined to speak with any media Tuesday, after organizers sent out a message instructing attendees to direct the press to speak only to a select few.
Shibeshi Darge listened to the bullhorn speeches from the middle of a crowd of hundreds, holding a large poster board sign that declared Calling someone hater for asking his rights hurts.
Im here for the children, said Darge, who lives in Silver Spring and has three children in kindergarten and fourth and fifth grades.
Montgomery County school officials said that Maryland state law does not permit parents to opt their children out of certain lessons, except for a specific unit on sexuality and family life in the health education curriculum.
Still, Darge, an Orthodox Christian, said he would like the option for his children to opt out of reading books with LGBTQ+ themes because those themes do not align with his familys faith.
He said he first learned about the push for an opt-out approach to teaching books with LGBTQ+ and gender-identity themes in March at his church, the Reese Adbarat Debre Selam Kidist Mariam Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in D.C. Darge said he knows parents from around Maryland, the District and Virginia who came out on Tuesday to support families like his. Darge said he imagines protests will keep growing if the school board stands its ground.
Were a big community, he said.
Tuesdays rally was the first Darge chose to attend, but he said he would be back with more parents if the school board failed to act. He said the districts claim that state law bars the opt-out will not silence demonstrators.
To the parents, that is not acceptable, he said. This is our kids.
There was a noticeable, unusual security presence outside the building for a board meeting; security staff directed traffic, and dozens were stationed in front of the buildings entrances. The school system restricted meeting attendance to guests and those who registered to speak during the public comment period. Officials had anticipated a large crowd and worked with the Montgomery County Police Department, said Jessica Baxter, a spokeswoman for the school system. The county emergency operations center was also doing enhanced monitoring of the protest, Baxter said.
The chants of protesters grew louder as the board convened its meeting and could be heard indoors as the volume rose.
The school board was not scheduled to discuss the books or an opt-out policy at Tuesdays meeting, but the group of demonstrators showed up anyway. They have become a routine presence at Montgomerys school board meetings, though Tuesday was by far the largest crowd to date.
During the meeting, most of the public comments were focused on the supplemental curriculum. Jennifer Martin, the president of the districts teachers union, spoke via video in favor of the books.
Students must have texts that reflect the many identities people have, Martin said.
Since the states narrow opt-out policy covers only family life and human sexuality content, the books which are part of an English language arts curriculum are not eligible for exemption, according to the district.
Kelly Manley, a spokesperson from the Maryland State Department of Education, confirmed it has been in touch with Montgomery County Public Schools to ensure its policies are aligned with state regulations.
At the school board meeting, board members discussed student safety data. During the 2022-2023 school year, 13 students were arrested and 15 students were referred to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. Last school year, there were three arrests and 39 referrals.
There were 1,708 designated serious incidents, the data showed. Most were medical emergencies, but 237 were related to drugs, alcohol or other controlled substances; 283 were related to weapons; and 348 were a fight or attack of a student or adult.
Representatives from the police department and school system told the county council in March that overall, there were fewer calls for service at schools compared with last year, although arrests were up.
The school system also ended a requirement for employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.