A protest by parents and others upset about a Pride Month assembly at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood turned violent Friday, with fights breaking out among protesters and LGBTQ-rights advocates who also descended on the campus.
“It’s a sad morning,” Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told Fox11 outside the campus as dozens of parents, protesters and others amassed outside the school on Ethel Avenue, leading to shouting matches, isolated skirmishes and disputes that forced police to intervene and separate the various factions.
A large police presence was at the school Friday morning in anticipation of the protest by parents of the Pride assembly, which was set to include the reading a book about diverse and different types of families. “The Great Big Book of Families,” the book being read during the assembly, is approved by the district, Carvalho said.
“I think there’s fairly good awareness as to what the book represents (and) what the book does not represent,” Carvalho told reporters outside the school Friday morning. “But as I said, people today easily pick political sides and decide to stick to the political sides, while to a certain extent ignoring the reality and the truth; so there’s general awareness as to what the book represents.”
No arrests were immediately reported, police said.
Parents opposed to the Pride event created an Instagram page to express displeasure with the planned assembly and called for parents to keep their kids home from school on Friday. But they also announced plans to conduct a protest at the campus to pass out leaflets to others about the issue.
Renato Lira, director of the San Fernando Valley LGBTQ Center, said in advance that volunteers with that organization also planned to be at the campus in a show of support for LGBTQ teachers and parents at the school.
What resulted was a mass of humanity assembled outside the school, with protesters wearing shirts and carrying signs with slogans such as “Leave Our Kids Alone” and “Parental Choice Matters.” Some people in the crowd waved Pride and American flags.
Parents organizing the protest repeatedly insisted this week that their grievance with the assembly was not a sign of bigotry or intolerance of the LGBTQ community, only a statement of their belief that a Pride assembly is inappropriate for elementary-school-aged children, and that parents should have the right to decide when to educate their children on the topic.
“We stand with (the) LGBTQ community in solidarity,” a message posted on the organizers’ Instagram page proclaimed Thursday. “Our protest is against LAUSD. In elementary schools, kids should learn math, English, science.”
“We want to reiterate that our protest is in no way an attack on the LGBTQ community,” according to a statement on the page. “We recognize the importance of promoting equality and acceptance for all individuals. Our intention is to raise the parents voices in wanting a say in when this topic is discussed with our kids.”
The organizers also posted repeated messages calling on protesters to be peaceful, calm and respectful.
But tensions over the Pride assembly heightened this week with news that a small Pride flag that was on display outside a campus classroom was burned sometime during the weekend of May 20-21, prompting a hate crime investigation by police.
Organizers of the parent protest have vehemently denied any involvement with the flag-burning. But news of the crime rapidly inflamed passions around the issue, likely contributing to the large crowd that gathered outside the campus Friday.
School officials made special arrangements allowing teachers and students to enter the Saticoy campus through a back entrance Friday so they could avoid the turmoil occurring in front of the school.
In a statement Thursday, the LAUSD insisted, “The safety of our students and our staff remains our top priority.”
According to the district, it “remains committed to maintaining a safe, inclusive and supportive environment for all students. We are also committed to ensuring diversity and inclusivity, in accordance with California’s nondiscrimination laws, so that all students feel empowered to realize their greatest potential. This includes the recognition of the diverse communities that we serve.”
Carvalho issued a statement Wednesday saying the district is “vigorously investigating” the burning of the small Pride flag at the school, calling it an “unacceptable act that serves nothing more than to diminish our school community.”
“We take the safety and security of our students and our campuses very seriously,” he said. “We are committed to creating a safe and inclusive learning environment that embraces the diversity of the communities we serve. There is no place for hate or intolerance in Los Angeles Unified.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that the burned flag had been outside the classroom of a teacher who is a transgender man, and who has since been removed from the school due to safety concerns. Photos of the teacher, however, were posted on conservative Instagram pages used by some parents opposing the planned Friday Pride assembly, the paper reported.
United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing LAUSD teachers, issued a statement Wednesday saying it “condemns the egregious behavior by bigoted protesters that outed the gender identity of a teacher at Saticoy Elementary.”
“At a time of unprecedented threats against the LGBTQIA+ community and anti-trans legislation, this unwarranted response is a blatant attempt to create a hostile environment, not just for visibly transgender people, but for anyone who does not fit neatly into strict male or female gender presentations,” according to UTLA.
“Whether North Carolina or California, public schools should be considered safe havens for our students, communities, and the educators who serve them. No educator, regardless of whether or not they conform to gender stereotypes, should have to go to work and fear any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior may occur against them.”
The union called actions at Saticoy “another brazen attempt perpetrated by the intolerant minority to divide our communities and demean educators. … We can either teach students that people and families come in all shapes and sizes, or we can choose to teach fear-mongering and hate.”
The protesting parents, however, insisted that their actions are not based on hate, but on a desire to maintain parental rights over their children’s education.
“We are parents of elementary school children, who have the right to introduce sexually explicit topics at our discretion,” according to the organizers’ Instagram page. “Yes any topic that is related to LGBTQ is sexually explicit. Why? Our children are innocent and have no idea what is out there. We as parents have the right to introduce these topics at our discretion. Instead we are being forced into talking about topics that should not burden our children for many years to come.”
The site includes phone numbers and email addresses of select school and district officials, urging parents to contact them to register complaints about the Pride assembly. The site also notes that the school has “a large population of Armenian & Hispanic families many who are Christian and/or share conservative values (and) don’t feel this material is appropriate to teach to the children and believe it’s a parent’s right to choose.”