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Clash of ideas, aggression seen at demonstration over ‘I Resolve’ educators

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Grants Pass Police lead away and arrest Lillyana Audley, 19, of Medford during a protest at Grants Pass High School Tuesday.
LGBTQ+ supporters and religious groups clashed at Grants Pass High School Tuesday over the board’s decision to reinstate two controversial educators

Tuesday afternoon at Grants Pass High School was no ordinary day.

Students, community youth and adults crowded NE Ninth Street and clashed — not just verbally, but at times physically — over the school board’s decision last week to reinstate two educators who promoted educational policies emphasizing biological sex over gender preferences.

Those educators are former North Middle School assistant principal Rachel Damiano and former science teacher Katie Medart, who founded the “I Resolve” movement. They were terminated in a 4-3 vote by the board last July after an independent investigation determined they used district resources to espouse their views and did not create enough distance between themselves and their jobs when they did.

But on Nov. 9, the board voted 4-3 to give Damiano and Medhart their jobs back — with one board member changing their original vote — which sparked invitations on social media of a “walkout” from class at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday. The district did not respond to a request for comment on the demonstrations.

Aniko LaFrance, a Grants Pass High School junior, said she participated to support her fellow students.

“We should not have teachers who aren’t supportive and want to put kids down,” she said. “If you have educators like that, then no one is going to be comfortable.

“We need teachers who can keep (their views) to themselves, even if they don’t agree, and aren’t going to try to force people to come out.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A protestor argues with a police officer during a LGBTQ+ demonstration at Grants Pass High School Tuesday.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Protesters clash with police during a LGBTQ+ demonstration at Grants Pass High School Tuesday.

LaFrance was referencing the views of Diamiano and Medhart, who wrote on their “I Resolve” website of the need for restrooms and locker rooms in schools to be separated according to anatomy, giving students who don’t identify as a boy or girl the option to use “private spaces'' until individual gender neutral bathrooms are required and fully funded.

Medhart and Damiano also want a prohibition on requiring educators to use the preferred pronouns of transgender students.

But some people, such as Whitman Franklin, 16, who says he is gender fluid and pansexual, believe the educators’ views are harmful.

“They’re treating trans people like they’re less than human,” he said. “They’re not thinking about the needs of other people.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Protesters clash with police Tuesday at Grants Pass High School.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Police arrest a protestor Tuesday at Grants Pass High School.

Marina Whitchurch, a community member, became emotional when she was asked why she showed up at the “walkout” Tuesday.

“This is incredibly personal — it should be personal to all of us,” said Whitchurch, who is married to a woman. “These are our children that we’re … fighting for.”

Exasperated, she exclaimed, “We’re almost a month away from 2022! It’s time to stop this archaic thinking of ‘boy’ equals blue and ‘girl’ equals pink.”

Demonstrators against the reinstatement of Damiano and Medhart showed up outside the school even before 1:45 p.m., holding signs with messages including “Queer rights are human rights” and “all genders are whole and holy.”

But then counter-protesters from religious groups showed up with signs rejecting the LGBTQ+ community. Those demonstrators — although few — were met with loud rants from students, pushing and shoving, chants of “you’re not welcome!”

The Grants Pass Police Department said in a news release that it had law enforcement presence at the high school and North and South Middle Schools, as requested by district officials. The demonstrations at the middle schools had “a small number of student participants with no reported problems,” the release stated.

But at the high school, police efforts were stepped up after 200-300 people showed up just after 1:45 p.m. and blocked NE 9th Street.

When counter protesters arrived, some arrests were made, leading to jail bookings or releases, depending on the circumstances.

One protester, Lillyana Audley, 19, of Medford, was arrested and lodged at the Josephine County Jail for riot, second degree disorderly conduct, and interfering with police after officers said Audley attempted to prevent officers from making the arrest and also encouraged others to block officers and the officer’s vehicle.

The person Audley was attempting to prevent the arrest of was a 14-year-old female student who police said began swinging a broomstick at a protester. The female student was detained for second-degree disorderly conduct and transported to the Josephine County Juvenile Justice Center, where she was cited and released to a parent.

The police department also reported a 15-year-old female student intentionally spitting in an adult male’s face. The juvenile was detained and escorted out of the area and faces criminal charges.

When police used de-escalation tactics to encourage the opposing groups to peacefully leave the area, a substantial number of students returned to class, leaving approximately 100 students who refused. The remaining students were left under the control and care of school staff.

“The role of the Grants Pass Police Department under these circumstances is to help keep the peace, ensure safety, nurture trust, and promote legitimacy within our community,” the agency’s news release stated.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Police and school administrators attempt to clear students blocking the path of a police car during a LGBTQ+ protest at Grants Pass High School Tuesday.

One counter-protester, Casie Peterman, was being interviewed by the Mail Tribune when she was interrupted by a crowd telling her to leave. She fell to the ground at one point, when someone tried to take her sign. Peterman spoke to police and was heckled by a teen for not wearing a mask before telling the newspaper a second time why she showed up to the demonstration Tuesday.

“We love the Lord and we know that we were once sinners and that God saved us and we just hope that God will save even just one of these kids here,” Peterman said. “Anyone outside of Christ is going to Hell and we don’t like that, so we bring the gospel. We’re kind of like gardeners throwing the seed out and seeing where it takes root.”

Peterman said she has spoken with Medhart and Damiano and followed the school board meetings that saw their firing. Pressed on whether she believes the same educational policies they do, Peterman instead talked about what drives LGBTQ+ youth.

“I think the culture is driving how kids see themselves. I think kids believe this is trending — ‘oh, I’m going to be transgender, too’ — and ‘they have to let me call myself the other gender,’” Peterman said. “The culture is very wicked. I believe there are two genders. That is it. End of story.”

Margaret Bradford was another religious community member attending Tuesday’s demonstrations, but unlike Peterman, she said her church supported the LGBTQ+ community.

Her stance on Medhart’s and Damiano’s reinstatement diverged from people who supported the two women. Bradford believes the board was correct when it fired Damiano and Medhart in July.

“They violated the state ethics law and District 7 policy,” Bradford said. “It’s against the law to use tax-supported time and resources to propagate your political messages.”

Damiano and Medhart issued a statement to the Mail Tribune ahead of Tuesday’s demonstration, saying they’ve offered to sit down with the students leading the charge to respond to any concerns or questions they might have.

“We believe a walkout is an attempt for students to have their voices heard, and we want to honor that desire by sitting down with them to talk,” Medhart and Damiano said. “Tolerant and respectful dialogue is something we have striven for since day 1, and we look forward to being given the opportunity to model reconciliation for our community. We have not heard back from the adviser or the district, but we are hopeful that we will be given an opportunity to open this dialogue.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.