School board meetings: Children are watching

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – As parents, we want what’s best for our children, but recently at school board meetings both locally and across the country, that mentality to protect and nurture has turned into a forum for chaos and cruelty, and our children are watching.

From parents cursing at school board members, to flipping them off, to laughing and jeering as someone speaks their opinion in front of the board, it’s safe to say, school board meetings have become unruly and uncomfortable places for some.

Jayna Saltisiak of Virginia Beach does not shy away from discussing important topics publicly. When she was 12, she made a push for more diversity on the school board.

“People who look like me have always thought that they could speak for us all, but they really haven’t done a very good job. I could never know what it feels like to be a Black kid, or a Filipino kid, or a bi-racial kid in our schools. I wanted to come in here and tell you that you can’t either,” Jayna told the board, in-person, in 2019.

At 15, she’s tackling transgender policies and mask mandates. Jayna spoke virtually at a school board meeting in August, supporting the mask mandate. Her father only has one lung and she’s afraid of bringing COVID-19 home to him.

She said as much at the school board meeting. What she didn’t hear, was the adults in the room who laughed at her when she said a lack of masks could leave to COVID killing her father. Jayna learned about the laughter later.

“I was kind of angry inside, but also confused, because it’s not funny. If those are the people that are making the world that I’m going to be living in, I’m really concerned for what I’m going to grow up into,” Jayna said.

While Jayna dealt with a mix of emotions about the laughter, she became more determined than ever to make her voice heard to the Virginia Beach School Board.

“Thank you for making sure that there is space here and that everybody’s wearing masks,” Jayna said as she spoke to the board in September of this year.

This time, Jayna spoke in support of new policies to protect transgender students. It was another, hours long meeting, where the passion of parents raged at times. The bedlam at school board meetings across the country can be scary for those who want to participate.

“Them acting like that and treating kids like that when they are speaking about something that concerns them, it’s just making it harder for them to come out, and making it much more terrifying,” Jayna said.

“Two real drivers of children is that they want to belong, and they want to contribute,” said Michele Tryon, CHKD Community Outreach Coordinator and Parent Educator.

Tryon emphasizes the importance of having civic-minded children.

“If I feel like I belong to a family, or a classroom, or a school, or a community, then I have my place in the world. If I feel like I can contribute something, then that gives me significance, and it helps to create a successful child in the long run. Someone who is contributing positively to society.”

If your child has a negative experience, such as adults laughing publicly about their feelings or opinions, there are some good ways to address the issue.

“It begins with listening. So, we want to find out what our children have been exposed to and what they’re thinking about what they’ve been exposed to,” he said.

Two-way communication is very important according to Tryon. Give your child a chance to express themselves. “What was the experience like for you? What did you hear? Do you have any ideas of things could have gone differently? We really want to listen to their experience and not just tell them what to think, but really ask them what they’re thinking about it. We want to create children who are critical thinkers and who are curious about why people do the things that they do.”

Tryon says it’s important to validate your child’s feelings, and then ask your child how they could make a difference. 

“It can be something like writing a letter. It can be something like coming on TV and having a discussion with someone who’s interviewing you about your experience. You still want to make sure that you’re telling your story.”

It’s imperative children understand appropriate ways to disagree as they become adults.

“Know that your children, in life, are going to experience conflict, and we want to teach them ways that they can build a consensus, find common ground with other people in order to create some kind of collaboration, and really make a positive and productive civic engagement opportunity for them.”

If your children get a negative response to speaking their minds, Tryon says that does not mean they should stop expressing themselves.

“Everybody doesn’t agree. Our children are going to experience lots of things, especially as they get to be adults, where people disagree. What we want to help them do is look at how people can, with caring, can they communicate, can they compromise, can they find some consensus, can they collaborate, and can they do all of that with composure?”

Composure is something Jayna’s mother, Suzanne, wishes she saw more of from adults in the room.

“The flipping off, the cursing, but a lot of it seems to be daring people to arrest them. They seem to want to instigate something,” said Suzanne Saltisiak.

This mother admits it’s nerve-wracking for her when Jayna wants to speak.

“I know how important it is for her to feel like she has a voice, and for her to feel like she has a space to be able to speak, and to be heard with it, but I had been watching a lot of the school board meetings and I knew what was going on, and I knew that there was a potential for somebody to say something unkind, and so we do a lot of preparation with her in order to make sure that she is able, that she understands what she is going into, and to make sure that she understands the people that are there do not reflect everybody around.”

She also has safety concerns. At a recent board meeting, she and Jayna had a security guard walk them out.

“He was talking about that he had somebody threaten him with a knife, calling him names, and cursing at him.”

Suzanne says, at times, she wants to turn the board meetings off, but she chooses to keep watching.

“The students who are being discriminated against, they can’t turn that discrimination off.”

Both Jayna and her mother say all voices and all opinions should be heard. They say silencing a voice is not acceptable.

“I just want it all to be safe, and a good space for everybody to voice their opinions on the matters,” Jayna said.

The Virginia Beach School Board recently passed a bylaw, proposed by board member Jessica Owens, that allows all currently enrolled students to speak first at school board meetings.

Now, at meetings that last late into the night, children have the option to get home at a reasonable hour to get rest before the school the next day. By speaking first, students also have the ability to avoid some of the chaos, and volatility, that has recently popped up at board meetings in the city.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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