Falls Church City is a quaint even-bluer bubble inside the already-blue bubble of Northern Virginia, with the highest or second-highest voter turnout in the state, over 70% of whom vote Democratic. So it’s no surprise when one candidate after another for the School Board stands up to speak about inclusivity, diversity, creating a welcome community, making sure the needs of all students are met, and about reducing stress and protecting the mental health of students.
So it went at the Falls Church City Democratic Committee’s monthly breakfast this Saturday morning, featuring the four candidates running for three spots on the School Board. At least, that’s how it went when the first three candidates–Susan Dimock, Laura Downs, and Phil Reittinger–stood up to speak.
And then suddenly, Douglass Stevens took the conversation in a whole different direction.
First, he expressed a strange concern about the school teaching children mindfulness. Mindfulness has been added to school curriculums around the county, and has been shown to decrease student stress and increase empathy, class participation, attention, and interpersonal function. But Stevens said when he first heard about mindfulness, he read about the practice at the library and discovered it had Buddhist origins. He said “I’m hesitant to have the schools endorse a religious practice.”
I will say, that as an agnostic myself, raising three children who have a variety of religious beliefs, there have been many, many instances over the years where religious practices have been endorsed by the schools, from daily reciting of “one nation under God,” to “holiday” choir performances with songs about “Jesus, our Savior,” to class assignments and exams my children missed on Yom Kippur. Every single one of these is more egregious than a thoroughly secularized relaxation and focusing technique that is derived from Buddhist practice. And, while we’re worrying about schools endorsing religious practices, perhaps we should also do away with high school basketball teams, since basketball has Christian origins, as James Naismith invented the game as a class assignment at the Young Men’s Christian Association training school.
It only got stranger and uglier from there. When asked about his position on inclusivity with regards to LGBTQ youth, he said:
“I am in absolute violent agreement with everyone else on the school board and the candidates on the goal, but I do have a different approach on the method of getting there…Do you achieve this caring, loving, accepting environment for transgender students by teaching everyone else that transgender is…by teaching transgender ideology to everyone? Or do you say, ‘hey people, you’re allowed to believe what you believe, but in our diversity of opinions we will respect, love, care for? We have a choice of which path we go on.”
He went on to talk about an assembly at the high school a couple of years ago, by author Amy Nutt, who tells the story of transgender activist Nicole Maines. He explained that Amy described it as “fantastic that this kid did this surgery in high school, and that gender is a spectrum and each one of you should really think about where you fall on that spectrum.” And that “that’s a perfectly fine opinion for her to have, but if…you’re going to have someone standing on the stage with all the inherent authority of the school behind her saying that” that should be balanced out with someone else giving the opposing opinion.
“Or I think an even better way would be why does the school need to teach that at all? Why would a school need to weigh in on such a deeply personal issue? …I want the school to be an honest intellectual broker that doesn’t glorify or vilify a choice either direction. These are choices that each child needs to make for themselves without being pushed one way or the other. Everyone needs to be taught to respect other people’s choices. They don’t need to be taught that the other choices are correct.”
Why should we teach this in school? Perhaps because transgender adolescents experience astoundingly high rates of suicide attempts due to rejection, bullying and harassment. Perhaps because someone running for the School Board repeatedly refers to the CHOICE and IDEOLOGY of being transgender, and seems to think that a school assembly about one adolescent’s successful reassignment surgery will “push” other students.
Because the Falls Church City School Board race is nonpartisan, the Falls Church City Democratic Committee does not make any endorsements. In my personal capacity, however, I strongly endorse Susan Dimock, Laura Downs, and Phil Reitinger, and encourage everyone to vote for them. They are highly qualified, passionate about our schools and our children, and want to build the kind of welcoming and inclusive community in Falls Church City that is the reason I choose to live here.