Paul McManus started the Jan. 30 Chilliwack school board meeting with a statement that they would not be answering questions on SOGI 123 for the evening, and wanted to deal with more urgent work of the board, including reconfiguration, student achievement, and capital projects. (Jessica Peters/ The Progress)

Chilliwack school district closes lobby for public meetings

Safety cited after handful of over-attended meetings, SOGI rallies

After several jam-packed meetings in past months, the Chilliwack School District announced Tuesday morning it would be closing its lobby to the public during meetings.

And when the time came for Tuesday evening’s meeting, the board room was nowhere near capacity.

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Other than a good-sized delegation from the Chilliwack secondary school’s hairdressing program, including recent graduates of the program, audience participation was back to its usual numbers, and business was back to usual after months of heated debate.

First, there were a few well-attended meetings discussing reconfiguration and catchment areas. Both issues change which schools children go to, depending on age or neighbourhood, and affect large numbers of families in Chilliwack. And most recent overflows were due to rallies in support of a teaching resource called SOGI 123, which trustees Barry Neufeld and Heather Maahs have both now spoken publicly against.

Finally, at the most recent meeting on Jan. 16, a large group of those rallying moved into the lobby and began chanting for Neufeld to resign. Inside the adjoined meeting room, it was at times difficult to hear but the board meeting carried on. At one point, Trustee Maahs made a motion to suspend the meeting to clear the protest/rally, and Neufeld supported her motion, but it was defeated by lack of support.

But there was little talk of SOGI (sexual orientation and gender orientation) programs at Tuesday’s meeting. Board chair Paul McManus announced at the outset of the first question period that the evening would not include questions on the matter, or questions about individual trustees. He said it had been a “challenging three months for all us around this table,” as well as the community.

“It’s been a bit of a lightning rod of controversy and debate,” he said, that “shows us the concerns of bullying in our schools is justified and that bullying is a learned behaviour.”

He asked that adults in the community focus on the positive things going on, “and be respectful regardless of the opinions you have.”

“This board is moving forward and as a result we will not be having questions on SOGI and SOGI 123 this evening,” he added.

However, talk about SOGI 123 is not closed entirely. McManus underlined that parents are encouraged to ask questions at the school level, to talk to their Parent Advisory Councils, teachers and administration about the resource.

“It’s unusual for a board to talk about resources in that much depth,” McManus said. “We want to move forward and focus on things that are very critical to our district,” citing items on the agenda including reconfiguration, student improvement, and capital projects.

Tuesday’s meeting was without incident, and no attempts at SOGI questions by the public. The Jan. 16 meeting was ended upruptedly when someone asked a question out of order that involved a child’s gender identity.

“The district’s official statement on the closure of the lobby during meetings was made public on their website. It read: Please note that, due to security and safety challenges, in addition to Fire Regulations, members of the public will not be allowed in the School District Office Lobby before, during or after the Regular Public Board Meetings. Members of the public are welcome in the Board Meeting room during the meetings, up to the capacity of available seating only – no standing room. Members of the public are also invited to watch the live streamed meetings on their computers and smart phones.”

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