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Sunol school board meeting devolves into chaos, audience thrown out as Pride flag banned

Sunol school board meeting devolves into chaos, audience thrown out as Pride flag banned

A meeting in the tiny district of Sunol, a small unincorporated community south of Pleasanton, descended into chaos Tuesday night as the entire audience was thrown out shortly before the three-person school board passed a resolution that will prevent the district from flying the Pride flag.

The board meeting, which packed over 100 people from both sides of the issue into a small cafeteria covered in student posters and walk-a-thon posters, frequently turned into a volley of shouts and insults. Hecklers shouted abuse at board members and each other. Board members engaged in intense, semi-civil debates. During the course of the evening, the board president, Ryan Jurgensen, demanded on multiple occasions that sheriff’s deputies physically remove “disruptive” attendees from the meeting.

In the end, prior to a final vote, all attendees were thrown out of the room as the cafeteria devolved into complete anarchy. They were not allowed to return.

Tensions were high the entire evening. Board member Ted Romo, who opposed the flag resolution, was frequently in conflict with Jurgensen and board member Linda Hurley, who supported it. Romo accused Jurgensen of censorship, then was himself accused by an attendee of acting “above the law”. In another tense moment, Jurgensen tried to prevent the district’s superintendent, Molleen Barnes, from discussing the flag resolution during her report or bringing Sunol Glen’s teachers up to address it.

As individual arguments broke out within the crowd, Jurgensen repeatedly hit the table, saying “this is the board’s meeting” in an attempt to call order.

After the audience was kicked out of the meeting, some supporters of the resolution said they were physically attacked.

During public comment, attendees who opposed the flag ban said that the board was “betraying the public trust” and creating a “potential economic crisis.”

“Gay people don’t have an agenda other than to grow up, have friends, get married, get a job,” said Laura Oka at the meeting. “The pride flag is not a special interest flag, gay people are not as special interest group.”

In the end, the resolution passed, even as shouts and disorder could still be heard outside the meeting room.

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Few would have predicted that the first tendrils of the educational culture war that has spread across the country would manifest in the Bay Area in Sunol, a tiny East Bay town of 800 people. But after the board of Sunol Glen Unified School District voted to ban pride flags put up by the district on the campus Tuesday night, some parents say that it has.

“This about them wanting to inflict harm on a group they disapprove of,” said Joel Souza, a parent and filmmaker based in Fremont, of the board resolution. “Another shot in the culture war.”

For years, parents considered Sunol Glen, an elementary school located in a bucolic valley south of Pleasanton, to be a cohesive, tight-knit community. 75 % of the approximately 270 students come from out of the district, and at least one such parent, Diana Rohini LaVigne, said she chose the school in large part because of its messaging around diversity and inclusivity. The school even had a social justice committee and supported resolutions surrounding equity and inclusion.

But after the 2022 school board election, which elected an entirely new board, some parents say things quickly changed. According to Rohini LaVigne, there were soon suggestions during school board meetings of creating committees to vet books among other suggestions that represent current national Republican talking points surrounding education.

Then, in June, a Pride flag was ripped off the chain link fence around the school. To protect it, school officials hung the flag on the school’s flagpole along with the California state flag and the American flag.

Soon after, Linda Hurley, one of the three school board members, introduced a resolution that would only allow the school to display “flags required by law”–the California flag and the American flag.

Although the resolution did not specifically mention the Pride flag, parents and community members said they had little doubt who it is targeting.

Beyond concerns about the resolution being a manifestation of bigotry directed at LGBTQ community, a group protected by law in California, some parents said the resolution could have a chilling effect on the enrollment of out-of district students, without whom the school would be unable to function.

Jurgensen said the flag resolution was misunderstood, and that this resolution would treat everyone the same by not flying one flag or another.

“I have been misrepresented, and the resolution I feel has been misrepresented,” Jurgensen said. “I feel like what we have before us is the most inclusive action possible.”

Others in support of the resolution said that the American flag already represents inclusion. One speaker said that discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Sunol was a “made up premise.” Anthony Rubio, a Sunol resident, said that resolution would “limit distractions and exposure to special interests not related to the school’s curriculum.”

In the hours leading up to the meeting, parents like Souza, the Fremont filmmaker, warned that the flag resolution was likely to turn a small elementary school into a political battlefield between parents.

“They’re pitting people against people, school families against school families,” said Souza. “Things have the potential to get ugly.”

On Tuesday night, they were.