ROCHESTER, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – In part one of our story about parental outrage regarding schools within the Rochester Community School district reading what parents deemed to be inappropriate books on gender to their children, we focused on their reaction to the school system’s decisions. Parents accused the schools of imposing personal belief systems on young, impressionable kids and “grooming” them by exposing them to certain topics without parental consent.

However, the controversies at Delta Kelly and Brooklands that were mentioned don’t appear to be isolated incidents but rather examples of the ongoing conflict between parents and the decisions made by Rochester Schools’ administration and teachers.

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At the special board meeting, Stephanie Van Daele, another concerned parent, criticized the school board’s involvement in events such as Pride in the Park, where drag queen performances and a drag queen story hour took place. Van Dale argued that such events are inappropriate for young children and questioned the judgment of the trustees who supported them.

The school board’s response.

The heated discussions at the board meeting led Trustee Carol Beth Litkouhi to propose suspending the rules to allow immediate responses from board members regarding the reading of inappropriate books. This was done because the board is not required to comment or respond to issues brought up during the public comment period. The motion did not pass.

Litkouhi, who does not support the lack of transparency regarding the school’s teachings, has previously tried to get information from the school district from FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act requests) concerning gender studies and DEI courses but has received partial responses and redacted information.

Litkouhi currently has a pending lawsuit against the school system with the Michigan Supreme Court regarding her request to see classroom materials. About the lawuit, Litkouhi says the lower court judge’s ruling on her case interpreted FOIA in an “unprecedented” manner creating a concerning loophole that has ballooned into a state-wide issue.

She said that according to Judge Cunningham’s interpretation, government bodies of all types, not only school districts, can effectively hide public documents with lower level employees so that these documents are no longer accessible to the public.

About the parents’ concerns about inappropriate gender books being read to students and their comments at the special meeting, Litkouhi told Michigan News Source, “I am disturbed at how our school system violated parents’ trust. According to the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA), parents have the right to have notice and consent before their child can be asked about subjects including mental health, political affiliation, religious affiliation, sexual behavior and attitudes, and much more. Shouldn’t parents also have the right to decide how their children are first exposed to sex/gender issues? This is not about a particular teacher as much as this is a systemic issue. It originates with our board and administration.”

Litkouhi went on say that as board members, it’s their duty to establish policies that safeguard both staff and parents when addressing controversial topics and given the diversity of beliefs, public schools should remain neutral, and classrooms should not serve as platforms for personal opinions. Regarding sex and gender education, Litkouhi said that parents should have the right to review and opt out of content they find unsuitable.

The debate continues.

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The controversy surrounding the gender books highlights a broader debate about the role of educators in discussing sensitive topics with young children. Supporters argue that inclusive education fosters understanding and acceptance, while opponents believe that certain subjects should be reserved for parents to address in their own time.

School board trustee, Andrew Weaver, says that this is “not a new issue for RCS and it has been documented for years. It is also not just one school building or just elementary schools, it is systemic.”

In May of 2023, Rochester Community Schools in a 5-2 vote adopted a resolution titled “Rochester Community Schools Board of Education LGBTQ+ Support Resolution” in response to a person writing to the board after being offended by Weaver wearing a shirt that said “Support Women and Girls in Sports and Schools.”

Changes now and possibly in the future.

The school district currently finds itself with a recently hired superintendent, Nicholas Russo, who began his term on July 1st of this year and attended the special meeting last week.

Former Superintendent Shaner’s resignation came after a lawsuit against the school which resulted in a nearly $190K settlement. Parents had asked him to step down after learning through the lawsuit that Shaner, in a deposition, confessed that the district monitored parents’ social media posts, compiled dossiers on those who were critical of the district’s decisions and advocated for reopening schools during the pandemic, and subsequently contacted their employers or notified the police in 2020 and 2021.

Elena Dinverno was fired from her job after she criticized the school district’s COVID-19 policies. She alleged that a school board member had contacted her employer about the incident and said she was “engaged in threats against” the district. In a deposition reported by the Detroit News, it said that Shaner had guided school officials to “monitor” community discussions on social media.

Five school board positions up for election in November.

Come November, there will be five open school board positions. The school board consists of seven members. The seats filled by Secretary Jessica Gupta and Trustee Carol Beth Litkouhi don’t expire until 2028.

Weaver says that the five “status quo slate” of trustees consists of President Michelle Bueltel (elected), VP Barb Anness, Treasurer (elected) Julie Alspach (previously appointed), Trustee Jayson Blake (previously appointed) and newcomer Richard Kaczanowski. These five have joined forces in a “5 for All” slate of candidates and have a FB page for their group here.

Litkouhi said about the slate, “The ‘Status Quo Slate’ has demonstrated that they are unwilling to help solve the problems that will move our district forward. While they have willingly overlooked basic financial oversight and stalled on literacy curriculum deficiencies for years, they seem to have no problem championing political talking points. It’s time to focus on education, get back to the basics, and start drawing families back to our district instead of scaring them away.”

Independents running for seats currently include Taara Donley, Nesreen Sabbagh and Bianca Asmar. Litkouhi provided a website link for information about the independent candidates here. Trustee Andrew Weaver said he is currently deciding on whether he will run for a board position again. The deadline to file to run is July 23rd.

Michigan News Source reached out to the 5 for All slate candidates mentioned about the parents’ comments at the special meeting and their opinion on the gender books being read to the children at the schools and none of them returned our request for comment.

Will the November election change the board?

As more parents become aware of the materials being introduced in classrooms in this community, they are likely to face increasing pressure to revisit their policies on inclusive education and parental notification.

The ongoing dialogue, as well as the special meeting about the norms that the group agreed to, all underscore the need for clear communication and collaboration between themselves, educators and parents to ensure that the educational environment respects diverse perspectives while fostering a safe and supportive space for all students.