OLEAN — An Olean City School District Title IX compliance officer’s comment about last week’s kid-friendly drag queen party is leading to questions about whether she can fairly review complaints of gender- and sexual orientation-based harassment.
An organized group of about 25 community members attended a tense Board of Education meeting Tuesday night looking for answers about what they perceive as an anti-LGBTQ comment made by the Facebook account of OCSD Director of Special Education Marcie Richmond, a screenshot of which has been spread on social media the last several days.
On another user’s public post about a June 20 event in which a drag queen read books to children at the Olean Public Library, Richmond’s account commented Thursday that “gender identity issues are directly from Satan” and that children “should not be exposed to that at such a young age.”
Richmond, whose comment has since been deleted, did not return requests for comment Tuesday.
Richmond, according to the OCSD’s website, is one of two Title IX compliance officers to whom claims of harassment should be brought. Title IX is federal legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational setting or federally funded program.
“What if a queer student comes in with intellectual disabilities, how can they make sure they’re getting fair services?” said Leo Wolters Tejera, a local salon owner who helped organize the showing at Tuesday’s meeting. “If you really think that a queer person is touched by Satan, how are they going to get a fair shake?”
Wolters Tejera and others, some of whom wore matching white T-shirts reading “No room for hate,” were not originally permitted by the board to make public statements. As the board allowed attendees to ask questions, the exchange became a nearly 20-minute debate — at-times heated — about the public’s right to speak.
Both parties ultimately agreed to hold a public forum on the issue Monday.
“We encourage this conversation, we want it, but we always have to do it in a timely and organized manner,” Olean City School District Superintendent Rick Moore told community members during the meeting. “We do want to hear what you have to say.”
Speaking with the Olean Times Herald, Moore said he was unable to comment specifically on Richmond’s case because it is a personnel matter, but that the district is “following up on” it. After the meeting, he and the board went into executive session about “a legal matter pertaining to the performance of an individual.”
Wolters Tejera, who is transgender and has children, one of whom currently attends the district and some of whom do not conform to socially defined gender norms, said the group is not necessarily looking to have Richmond terminated. However, they do want to make sure the district takes the issue seriously and responds to it.
“Our concern is that there’s a policy that prevents this in the future, that protects our students in the future and that will move us forward as a school and as a community,” Wolters Tejera said.
TUESDAY’S MEETING was supposed to be held in the Olean High School board meeting room, but was moved to the auditorium to accommodate the large crowd of about 50 total attendees.
When it came time for the public comment portion of the meeting, Moore and board members stood by their policy that states that those wishing to speak should submit a written request to get their topic on the meeting agenda no later than the Wednesday before the meeting. The policy also states topics may not involve the “personalities” of district employees.
“That is also to protect you as well as us, because there are slander laws in the United States,” said Board Vice President John Bartimole at the meeting.
The policy was refined just last year after board members debated for months about whether they should limit comments made by the public.
Tim Sherlock of Olean was one of the first members of public to take issue with the board’s policy at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I should not have to ask my school board to make a comment about the school district in which I live in,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to call and say, ‘May I please speak to you about a concern I have at a public forum?’”
Community members noted it was impossible for them to get their topic submitted by Wednesday, given that Richmond’s comment was not made until Thursday. Wolters Tejera, who prefers they/them pronouns, said they personally contacted the district clerk to get the topic on the agenda, but was told they could not because the deadline had passed.
The group also argued the topic was on the agenda given the board was set to approve changes to the district’s code of conduct, while the board rebutted that the code of conduct is for students. That led Olean resident Michael Powell to twice ask for a “one-hour public discussion on how the code of conduct should be applied to individuals in places of power in Olean City School District.”
The most intense exchange of the back-and-forth came when Moore told Elle Tejera, Wolters Tejera’s partner, that officials “have a pretty good handle on why you’re angry.”
Wolters Tejera yelled back that Moore doesn’t “get to speak for us.”
“You’re a white man. You’re a white, straight man — you don’t get to speak for a brown lesbian with queer children. I’m sorry, but that’s unacceptable,” they said.
The statement was followed by four seconds of silence, as Moore pursed his lips and looked around.
After the meeting, the group huddled outside the auditorium to discuss how they will approach the issue at Monday’s forum, all still feeling they should have been allowed to speak. One idea was to ask for a diversity chair on the board.
THE DRAG QUEEN event, part of the Olean Public Library’s effort to highlight Pride Month, set off its own debate about whether children should be exposed to drag. Ultimately about a hundred supporters showed up to the event, as well as a small group of protestors.
The Buffalo-based drag queen who performed for the children, Benjamin Berry, attended Tuesday’s meeting also donning a “No room for hate” T-shirt, as well as rainbow-colored socks. Berry, who said he’s received mostly positive messages since the performance, said Richmond’s comment makes him doubt she can monitor discrimination within the district.
“That tells me, one, she doesn’t think (gender identity issues are) a real problem,” Berry said, “and, two, if they are a real problem, she cannot detach from her theological ideology when handling the situation.”
Berry, whose drag queen persona Flo Leeta preaches acceptance regardless of gender or sexual orientation, said it’s crucial LGBTQ youth receive protection from discrimination given studies that show they’re at a higher risk of suicide than hetereosexual and cisgendered youth.
“Not having support from your peers or the people that are supposed to support you when you need it might push students to a really dark place and potentially one where they are at risk for self-harm,” Berry said.
He added it’s been interesting to see how his drag performance has “sparked a sort of increase in LGBTQ activsm and awarness and brought people together in a more organized way.”
Some, like Melissa Ensell of Olean, suggested Richmond not be fired but removed from her post as a compliance officer.
“It seems like it would be a conflict of interest,” said Ensell, who did not attend the meeting but submitted an email about her concerns to the district’s other Title IX compliance officer, Human Resources Director Aaron Wolfe.
According to SeeThroughNY, which tracks the salaries of public employees in the state, Richmond made $105,723 last year.
RICHMOND’s comment also stated she “will definitely continue to love all people no matter where they are right now on their journey” and “continue to pray for what’s right.” Some online have defended her right to freedom of speech.
Wolters Tejera argued it’s “long been a standard” that workplaces have policies on employees’ speech, including comments made online.
“People need to realize social media is a public forum, so those same standards need to extend into this digital arena,” they said. “There has to be some respect and decency and realization of what you’re posting in light of the position that you hold.”
The OCSD employee code of conduct does not appear to be available on the district’s website. When the Times Herald asked for a copy of the employee code of conduct, Moore said he would work to provide it, but did not do so by press time Tuesday.
Several Olean Teachers Association officials attended Tuesday’s meeting but did not speak; Richmond, as an administrator, is not a member of the union.
OTA Co-President Kellie O’Brien said the OTA was there “to support our diverse student population.” She and Co-President Matthew Perry did not wish to directly comment on Richmond.
Marie Rakus, an OHS English teacher, attended the meeting with her daughter because she was “disturbed” by the negative comments she had seen online about non-cisgendered people. While Rakus was not a member of the organized attendees, she said she empathized with them.
“I want the children of the community to know their teachers care about them,” Rakus said.
Monday’s forum is currently set to be held at 5:30 p.m., an hour before the board’s annual reorganizational meeting.
Wolters Tejera said the board would have been better off allowing the group to speak Tuesday.
“I think it served to further unite people, which is a consequence they’re going to have to deal with because it is of their own making,” Wolters Tejera said. “They were not ready for us, but the problem is they just gave us more time to get organized.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)