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Hanover students continue Virginia's history of student protests

Person standing with arms crossed
Aspen, a freshman at Mechanicsville High School who's organizing an after school protest this Friday

LGBTQ students in Hanover County feel discriminated against and are organizing walkouts and protests to make their concerns public.

Aspen, a freshman at Mechanicsville High School, is organizing an after school protest this Friday along with a few classmates. Aspen, who is queer and nonbinary, says they decided to organize a protest after the district school board voted to allow the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom – categorized as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – to review the district’s equity policy.

“That was kind of the last little push that a lot of us needed, to say ‘this is not OK,’” Aspen said. “Now that you're taking action to discriminate against us in such a bold way … that's not OK.”

Aspen said they and other members of their school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance decided to take action a few days after students at Hanover’s Atlee High School  walked out of school in mid-March to protest the school board’s rejection of state-mandated policies outlining the rights of LGBTQ students as well as the district’s engagement with ADF.

Initially, Aspen says they were planning a walkout at Mechanicsville High on March 31, Transgender Day of Visibility. But following  student suspensions at Atlee High School, Aspen says Mechanicsville’s principal informed students planning the Mechanicsville walkout that “the county was now requiring him to pretty much guarantee everyone who participated a three-day suspension.”

Mechanicsville’s principal Charles Stevens referred VPM News to district administration for answers to questions. Chris Whitley, a spokesperson for Hanover County Public Schools, disputed the notion that the administration was involved in this decision and said in an email that “all student discipline is initiated at the school level, not by school division administration or the School Board.”

However, Whitley added that “students are expected to follow all behavior and attendance requirements by reporting to and staying in their designated, supervised areas during instructional time. Students are not permitted outside of the school unsupervised as a matter of safety. Students who do not follow these expectations will be held accountable for their actions in accordance with the Code of Student Conduct."

Additionally, Aspen says students made the principal aware of threats of violence against students who planned to protest that day. But because of the suspension threats, the walkout on March 31 was canceled. Instead, they’re planning an after-school protest this Friday on the  national Day of Silence – which was started in the 1990s by a University of Virginia student.  According to the official website, students “take a vow of silence to protest the harmful effects of harassment and discrimination of LGBTQ people in schools” on the day.

At Mechanicsville High School this Friday, LGBTQ students and supporters will wear pink. Aspen will be handing out printed stickers for students to put on their masks or T-shirts to signal that they’ll be staying silent throughout the day.

Aspen says “a lot of the [school] administration really don't take people bullying people because they are queer very seriously,” which is another reason why they say this protest is needed.

Lee, a 15-year-old transgender sophomore in Hanover County, says he’s been discriminated against because of his gender identity and sexual orientation in school on numerous occasions, so much so that he doesn’t feel comfortable using the men’s or women’s bathroom.

Lee says in the women’s bathrooms, he’s experienced slurs. And in the men’s bathroom, he’s nearly gotten beaten up. Ideally, he’d like to use the men’s bathroom, but he currently doesn’t feel safe there and uses the nurse’s bathroom or the greenhouse restroom.

“Having students within the school knowing that I'm trans … I guess it makes them uncomfortable slightly, where they feel like they have to say something to me about me using the men's bathroom,” Lee said. “But personally, I would love to go to the men's bathroom without being harassed.”

Lee says he’s also had a trans bandana yanked off and thrown in the trash. A student secretly took photos of Lee in a hallway at school and posted derogatory messages along with the photos on social media.

Lee hopes that students’ silence on Friday will raise awareness about the discrimination he and others have faced in the district.

“Pretty much every single queer person or trans person I know [at Mechanicsville High] has had very similar if not the same things happen to them,” Aspen said. “I’ve had some pretty traumatic things happen to me.

“I think a lot of people don't realize how much these kinds of things affect people, because it's definitely hard thing to understand if you're not a queer person.

“I think this is one of those times where you have to say, ‘OK, I can't relate to this, but it's not hurting me. So I need to just take a step back and say, this is fine.’ Because, it's not harming you, and it's helping other people by a longshot.”

Mary Bauer, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, says “what I think is really inspiring is that these are the students themselves deciding what the most important issues are,” and that it’s powerful for students to show this kind of courage and to stand against discrimination and bigotry.

“So many times in the history of Virginia and in the history of the United States, the law or the policies that are promulgated, passed by adults are fundamentally wrong and unfair,” Bauer said. “And so to see young people stand up and say, ‘this is not right, we deserve to be treated better than this, this is not the way schools should be run’ … that's an incredibly powerful message for all of us.”

Tar paper shacks without proper insulation that leaked when it rained. A potbelly stove that spewed hot coals, with students in the back bundled up in heavy coats while students with desks close to the stove in front roasted.

Only outhouses were provided for Black students while white kids enjoyed indoor plumbing. 

These were the learning conditions that led 16-year-old Prince Edward County student Barbara Johns to approach senior John Stokes and a group of other student leaders in fall 1950 about organizing a walkout at Robert Russa Moton High School.

“They [tar paper shacks] were not fit for animals,” Stokes told VPM News. “So we knew we were being programmed for failure.”

Stokes agreed to help support Barbara Johns’ plan to orchestrate a strike. He said it was referred to as the Manhattan Project because pulling off the walkout involved months of planning in secrecy and careful vetting of other students involved in organizing it.

Stokes wrote a book about the strike, “ Students on Strike: Jim Crow, Civil Rights, Brown, and Me.” He said they ended up luring the principal away from the school before the protest began.

“Three guys left the school and called from downtown to get Mr. Jones out of the building,” Stokes said. The principal was told that some students were causing problems downtown. 

“So when Mr. Jones came back, this thing was in full force,” he said.

During the two-week strike, Stokes said Jones visited his home begging the students to call it off. He didn't want to lose his job. 

"And we'd say no, we can't call it off," Stokes said. "Because we would have let the people down who were relying upon us for equality."

Saturday is the 71st anniversary of the historic walkout that took place on April 23, 1951. It eventually culminated in the historic Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education which declared that separate school facilities for Black and white students were inherently unequal.

“Young people often have a keen sense of right and wrong,” said James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association. “It’s important for them to have their voices heard when they feel like they’ve been muted, or they’ve been minimized, or they feel as though they’ve been disenfranchised.”

In October 1970, around 100 students at Richmond’s George Wythe High School protested a dress code that prohibited female students from wearing slacks and pantsuits. The students entered the school administration’s office during lunch, and were asked to leave. Soon after that, the dress code was changed.

More recently, student-led protests in other states have also led to change: including changes to  testing policies in Colorado, school  facility upgrades in New Jersey and better protections for immigrant students in Wisconsin.

Bauer adds that just because school officials have the authority to discipline students for peaceful protests, doesn’t mean they should. Instead, Bauer says it’s an opportunity to talk about the issues and about the constitutional rights to protest. She points to the 1969 case of Mary Beth Tinker, who was disciplined for wearing a black armband in school to protest the Vietnam War. 

“The Supreme Court said that as long as she was not disrupting the educational environment, she had that legal right to wear that armband,” Bauer said. “And so that's the legal standard - is it going to disrupt the educational system for the school as a whole?”

Even the principal at Moton High School in 1951 tried unsuccessfully to put an end to the historic walkout. According to the book “ Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County,” Principal Jones begged students gathered in the auditorium to return to class, but after a few minutes relented and left. He would later lose his job after officials faulted him for the walkout and his contract was not renewed.

But despite pushback, Johns and other students were determined to prevail.

“It's the power of one,” said VEA President James Fedderman. “That's all it takes…the power of one to really create the change that is long overdue.”

The issue of subpar facilities is, unfortunately, still a big problem in many Virginia localities including Prince Edward and Richmond.

“I think something far greater is going to have to happen to heighten the level of awareness about the conditions,” Fedderman said. “And I think once the level of awareness has increased, I think that's a better platform to truly demonstrate what collective power looks like to create the change that is long overdue.”

Amy Tillerson-Brown, education chair for the Virginia NAACP and dean of the Mary Baldwin College for Women, says she thinks that strikes are “absolutely” necessary to address the facility conditions of many public schools today.

“Oftentimes, unfortunately, you may not get to reap the benefits of the protests, but future generations assuredly will,” said Tillerson-Brown. “So we have to move in that hope, to continue to speak truth to power, to stand against systems of oppression in any form. Because here we go back to King; ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

A public panel discussion at Farmville’s Moton Museum Saturday from 4-5 p.m. will discuss what the past can teach us about the state of schools today. The event is free and open to the public.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.