Conway High School Ronny Willhite, Creative Commons

If it were not for the protest signs, the chants of “Trans Lives Matter!” and the large police presence, the Conway School Board meeting Tuesday night might have put a few audience members to sleep.

But that wasn’t the case, thanks to roughly 30 protesters who also chanted “Black Lives Matter!” and to Superintendent Jeff Collum, who became apologetic when the chants began just outside the board room and perhaps jarred a few sleepy audience members awake.

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You can watch the protest for yourself here.

We learned today that Conway police eventually arrested three men on charges of failure to disperse — Keylen Montebreshon, 18, of Little Rock; James A. Barnett, 20, of Bentonville; and Colburn Paul Clark, 32, of Mayflower.

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22-1101393 Police Report

Protesters, some wearing rainbow or pride colors, carried an array of signs when they earlier showed up outside the Conway High School. They had expected to welcome students who were planning a 2:30 p.m. walkout, partly over actions by the school board targeting transgender people.

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The board recently opted to define gender as the sex cited on one’s original birth certificate and mandated that students and adults use school restrooms that align with that gender. Anyone uncomfortable with that policy can request access to a single-use restroom, though not all buildings on campus have such restrooms and making the request could force some students to go public about their sexuality. The board also approved a less contentious policy for overnight stays in rooms on school trips and later voted to ban two books about transgender youths from the junior high school library despite a committee’s recommendation that the books be retained.

“Don’t be a child’s first bully,” one protest sign said Tuesday. Another said, “Support equal rights.”

“This is not just a trans issue. It’s a total student issue,” said Stephanie Gray, board president of the Faulkner County Coalition for Social Justice.

The planned walkout, which the school district prevented from happening with a stern and threatening warning over its intercom system, was also in response to a proposed board policy that would ban or restrict a wide range of topics from being taught in the school district. You can hear that warning, which uses words like “insubordinate” and “subversive’ to scare these young people.

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Some students who wanted to walk out were reportedly detained in the high school auditorium, though I didn’t see them and was interrupted and asked to leave by the principal as I talked calmly with a police officer outside the building. The principal said I had to leave and he told me to go to the administration building. I don’t follow orders too well. So, I returned to the Prince Street sidewalk where the protesters were standing instead.

The signs and the chants were the protesters’ only way to voice their views during the school board meeting. The board did not allow any speakers from the public because Collum said it’s changing the speaker policy. The board discussed limiting speaker time to 3 instead of 5 minutes and to making sure the speech stays on an agenda topic. The other change would not allow a speaker to yield time to someone else.

It’s unclear why the board can’t take speakers for now. It did not vote on the measure, so it likely will be up for a vote next month. Whether speakers will be allowed after that vote and at that meeting is anyone’s guess.

“We haven’t banned speakers,” Collum contended at the board meeting. “All we’ve done, we’ve essentially hit pause.” But for how long is this pause? And the speakers are banned during the “pause,” right?

Board member Linda Hargis — she’s the one who calls herself a “patriot” — also chose to lash out at a recent Arkansas Times article about the board’s proposed policy to restrict or ban topics that can be taught in the city’s school system, though she did not call the publication’s name.

“We rejected it immediately,” Hargis contended, referring to proposed policy 5.5.2. “It’s not on the table. That’s not a policy that’s being thought of.”

If that’s right, that’s news because it means the board must have voted on it during a meeting that was not recorded as required by state law. Further, she might want to advise the school’s administration that the board rejected the policy and when — as in, at which meeting and which agenda item and what was the vote breakdown. Who made the motions? Where was it recorded? I’ve asked twice for a recording of the Sept. 6 meeting. I was just told that the board only started recording its “work sessions” as of Sept. 28.

If Hargis wants to prove she’s being truthful about such a vote, she and the rest of the board need to start following the law and recording all of their board meetings, not just the main ones that most people attend. Taking minutes wouldn’t hurt either.

In defense of my own article, which I stand by entirely, I am sharing this email exchange I had in October with Heather Kendrick, who until recently handled the school’s FOI and media requests.

 

 

Finally late this afternoon, Joel Linn, an assistant superintendent now handling school media inquiries, emailed me to say: “A draft of policy 5.5.2 was discussed by the board at the September 6 work session. This policy has not been on any agendas since that time and is not currently under consideration.”

Readers, please note: Linn did NOT say that the board voted on the policy, that it rejected it or accepted it. No one other than patriot Hargis has to my knowledge made that statement. Since the board chose to ignore state law and not record that meeting, it’s now in her hands should she want to back up her claim.  Further, Collum could have said what Linn said back in October when I was asking about the matter. He didn’t

The proposed policy clearly upset Scott Champlin, a board member who resigned from the panel Sept. 19.

“Who wrote this, or where did it come from?” Champlin asked Superintendent Collum in a Sept. 5 email, as we’ve reported previously. “My first thought is that the cure is far worse than any symptom. I have never, not once, had any of these brought up as a problem in our district.”

Should a teacher or other educator violate the proposed policy, the penalties would be severe, perhaps even in violation of state law, the superintendent said in an email to the board on Sept. 1.

“Board, I am resending this policy for your review,” Collum wrote. “Please review Section 4. Penalties very carefully. There are several concerns and questions we have about conflicts with Arkansas Law and Teacher Fair Dismissal process.”