By ANI FREEDMAN, InDepthNH.org
GOFFSTOWN – Amid flash flood warnings and heavy rain, the Goffstown High School Media Center was packed with residents, state representatives, parents, and students Monday to discuss the recent controversy over LGBTQ+ materials on a bulletin board at Mountain View Middle School in Goffstown.
The meeting became just as animated as the last meeting, held on August 28th, picking up right where it had left off. Two weeks ago, several parents and state representatives spoke up against information and posters pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community at Mountain View Middle School. On Monday night, parents expressing the same disdain for this messaging returned, while other parents and students joined the conversation to oppose their comments.
Heather Trzepacz, chair of the Goffstown School Board, immediately called for civility and respect, especially considering students were present at the meeting.
The parents opposed to the availability of information for the LGBTQ+ community expressed concern over a transgender flag hung in the guidance counselor’s office, the book Answers in the Pages, by David Levithan recommended for summer reading, and a whiteboard in the library with information posted about pronoun usage, the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation, and definitions of other terminology related to gender identity and sexuality. Hung next to this information were resources for suicide prevention and support.
At Monday night’s meeting, the room erupted with emotional comments and stories from members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies. Parents in opposition to representing transgender and other gender identities reiterated the sentiments of the last meeting.
Laura Adams, a Goffstown resident, was one of the many people to speak up in favor of the bulletin board’s messaging for students. “They need to know that they have multiple places to go for answers,” Adams said. “Whether it be a book, a trusted individual, or a bulletin board.”
Sandy Rigazio, another resident of Goffstown, expressed the importance of accepting every child, but called the bulletin board “divisive.”
“As a taxpayer, I think our education should be about math, English, it shouldn’t be about teaching gender, because it is such a divisive issue,” Rigazio said at the meeting.
Alongside the information about gender identity and sexual orientation on the controversial bulletin board was the following written about pronouns:
“Pronouns are important. Using someone’s correct pronouns creates an inclusive and respectful environment. Don’t assume a person’s pronoun. If you don’t know, use their name, use a general ‘they’ or ask for their pronouns.”
After the animated August 28th school board meeting, Superintendent Brian Balke of the Goffstown and New Boston school districts announced the removal of the materials pertaining to pronoun usage, gender identity and sexual orientation, and definitions of what labeled as “complex terms,” including the terms transgender, gay, queer, non-binary, cis-man, and cis-woman from the bulletin board. The resources on suicide prevention remained on the board.
Frank Hobbs spoke up at the meeting against the bulletin board and related topics, claiming such information is in violation of the New Hampshire law RSA 186:11 which, as written, requires “school districts to adopt a policy allowing an exception to a particular unit of health or sex education instruction based on religious objections” and “to adopt a policy allowing an exception to specific course material based on a parent’s or legal guardian’s determination that the material is objectionable.”
Hobbs called the messaging of the bulletin board a promotion of “indoctrination camps or personal lifestyle propaganda” and “not an appropriate use of Goffstown taxpayer dollars.”
Parents at the August 28th meeting expressed concern and anger at this information being made available to their children at the middle school. Many of them did not believe their children should be subject to pronoun usage or learn about transgender identities. Rep. Lisa Mazur, R-Goffstown, and Rep. Keith Ammon, R-New Boston, were both there to back the parents.
Mazur had stated at the last meeting that it should be “up to parents if they want this kind of information presented to middle school-aged children.”
Many members of the LGBTQ+ community came forward at the meeting in favor of the content of the bulletin board.
Pat Stagno approached the microphone at the board meeting, walking with crutches and adorning a U.S. Veteran hat and wearing a U.S. Navy t-shirt. Stagno spoke about her own experience as a lesbian woman in the military at the meeting.
“If we don’t give children the opportunity and set an example that to be different is okay, that everybody has a choice, then we’re only going to run into the same thing that I ran into,” Stagno said. “And it can only get worse. The women in the service now are still fighting the same fight.”
Brian Ibsen-Johnson countered other parents’ beliefs that the bulletin board was a “means of indoctrination into the LGBTQ+ community.”
“Children should feel included regardless of their individual differences, including gender identity,” Ibsen-Johnson said. “Its message was not indoctrination, but one of care for each of our students and student body.”
Kerstie Hazelbaker, mother of the high school student liaison to the school board, Lily Hazelbaker, became emotional behind the microphone. In an email sent to Hazelbaker’s daughter following the meeting two weeks ago, Lily—who identifies as gay—was told by another community member that “she suffers from a contagion,” according to Hazelbaker.
Following Hazelbaker’s comment, a man shouted from the back of the room that minors, such as Lily, should not be allowed in these meetings at all.
Josiah Aseltine, a seventh grader at Mountain View Middle School, spoke a few words about how he felt about what had transpired at the previous meeting.
“What I’ve heard today, it’s very disappointing, the outcome of all of the decisions the school board has made in the past few weeks,” Aseltine said. He underscored his comment by saying he had multiple family members in his home who identify as LGBTQ+.
“This is child abuse, I’ll see you all later,” a man shouted as he abruptly left the room following Aseltine’s comment.
Erin Eames McCarthy, a local Goffstown mother of two children and a co-admin of the town’s LGBTQ+ community Facebook page, said she felt nervous before the September 11th meeting. She’s never been involved in what she called “school politics,” but felt compelled to represent the LGBTQ+ community and the children that identify as a part of it.
“We just want the kids to feel safe and have a voice,” McCarthy said on a phone call before the meeting. “We need to have a safe place for our kids to go and talk about their feelings and their identity, their sexuality if they need an outlet.”
McCarthy was outraged at Superintendent Balke’s decision to remove the information from the board.
“It felt like it was an erasure of our community,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy and other parents are hoping to look at the school curriculum and find a way to provide the “right information for the right age group.”
In a video posted to the district website on September 7th, Superintendent Balke said he felt the bulletin board “exceeded the scope of developmental appropriateness for some middle school students,” emphasizing that there were some children as young as age 10 in the school.
“The bulletin board appears to have taken a political turn,” Balke said in the video. He affirmed his support of the school counselors and all members of the LGBTQ community, and said the board would go back up with resources of a “developmentally appropriate level” for the students.
Kyle Hubbard, another Goffstown resident, spoke up on behalf of himself and his wife at the meeting. While Hubbard opposed the messaging on the board, he urged for acceptance of multiple viewpoints. “My concern is that as we move forward beyond this bulletin board that we think about ways to teach our kids how to think and speak on these issues that don’t lead to deeper polarization,” Hubbard said.
Before the meeting, Melanie Renfrew-Hebert, chair of the Goffstown Democrats and a parent of children in the Goffstown School District, expressed her concern over the rhetoric in opposition to the bulletin board and what it stands for. Her focus was on the children who identify as LGBTQ+.
“I want them to be able to walk into school, and to not only have the same quality educational experience that they get attending Goffstown schools,” Renfrew-Hebert said over the phone, “but also to get the same social and developmental resources and support that every other student in the school would get.”
As of now, it is unclear if the bulletin board will be reinstated with the same information or what information may replace it.
Many parents cited high suicide rates and mental health struggles among LGBTQ+ youth at the meeting. According to the Trevor Project, a non-profit organization focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth, those identifying with the community are over four times as likely as their non-LGBTQ+ peers to attempt suicide. The Trevor Project also estimates that over 1.8 million LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24 seriously contemplate suicide each year in the U.S., and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
Please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline if you are experiencing mental health-related distress or are worried about a loved one who may need crisis support. The hotline will connect you with a trained crisis counselor and 988 is confidential, free, and available 24/7, weekdays and holidays. You can visit the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for more information at 988lifeline.org. For LGBTQ+ youth, you can also visit the Trevor Project to call or chat with a crisis counselor.