Over 100 concerned parents, educators, and others showed up at a school board meeting of Washington Elementary School District No. 6 (WESD) in Glendale to speak Thursday night, most of them upset that the school board unanimously decided that the district would no longer hire student teachers from Arizona Christian University (ACU). Newly elected School Board Member Tamillia Valenzuela, who describes herself as “witchy AF” and “queer AF,” led the effort, stating the university’s “biblically-informed” values made her feel unsafe.
Valenzuela, wearing her trademark cat ears, started the meeting by attacking the lawmakers who criticized her.
“I want to address the hatred from our lawmakers, who have been bullying our LGBTQ students,” she said.
The school board member added, “Young people are watching you and you are letting them know that you are not a safe person for them to be around … that is a shame because adults are perpetuating hate.”
She continued, “Because of that, our youth are experiencing emotional and mental health issues at an exceeding number … so you can’t sit in your hatred. How is that preaching Christ’s teachings that you claim you stand so so firmly in? Our institution has policies that are openly bigoted, and I will not sit here as a member of the community, and let our children be subjected to that.”
Outside the rallies, protesters representing both sides of the debate argued with each other.
Board President Nikkie Gomez-Whaley spoke lengthily, denouncing the rude emails people had sent to the school board members but didn’t say anything about Valenzuela’s remarks. Other board members also went on extensively about the rude emails, but did not mention Valenzuela.
Board Member Kyle Clayton stated, “I want to stand in solidarity with Mrs. Valenzuela, who has faced ‘homophobic harassment.’”
The board allotted one hour for the public to speak and received 70 requests, so they drew 32 names out of a basket to determine who would get to speak.
Laura Blakesly, the first speaker, wore a red Arizona Christian University shirt and said she taught for 17 years in the district.
She said, “Allow me to remind the board that all practicum students and student teachers are supervised directly by WESD teachers.”
She added that“the board was acting on a bunch of what ifs when voting on this matter.”
Blakesly said she supervised 16 teachers in training from ACU, who had “glowing reviews” and zero complaints in the years of partnership. All of them except one were eventually hired after they graduated as teachers by WESD.
Amy MacFarlane, a teacher in the district, spoke next. She said the district is sending this message: “Whether you are a Christian, a Christian worker, a parent or a student, the Washington Elementary School District does not have a place for you. Five people who are in a position of power are telling ACU student teachers directly and indirectly telling all of us Christian parents, students and staff members and educators, ‘you do not belong here.’”
Erica Smith, who said she had 22 years of experience in the district, said she spoke for Christians and others she works with. “
Your decision to criticize the traditional values of this university is outside of your scope of practice,” she contended, adding that religion is protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She said she works with many of the student teachers, and that the district is terminating them “because they love their Creator and have values that aren’t yours. They’re unworthy of the same arrangement that we have with other universities.”
Ben Larrabee of Turning Point USA gave an impassioned speech.
“I do believe students are suffering in this district,” he said. “I do believe students are unsafe in this district. Let’s see if the abuse is because lockdowns, mask mandates, and insane COVID-19 policies are unsafe.”
He discussed other problems with students that he believed were far more serious, including fatherlessness and mental illness.
A man named Jeff Caldwell spoke next. “There was no evidence that was directly a result of discrimination from the teachers from ACU,” he said. He said believes the termination violated the First Amendment, which will result in a “multimillion dollar lawsuit” that taxpayers will have to pay for.
Patricia Pellett, a parent in the school district, read Martin Niemöller’s famous “First they came for the Jews” quote, and added, “I have stood up against discrimination my entire life, and if we don’t speak up now, the persecution will continue.”
Heather Vasquez, representing the Washington Principals’ Association, denounced people’s angry responses directed at the board members.
Kendra Stanley, who represents the Moon Valley/Mountain Sky area, wore a hat with a cross on it. She thanked Valenzuela “for successfully just putting a target on the backs of the little Christian children at these schools.”
She pointed out that the board’s viewpoint also applies to Muslim and Jewish teachers since they share the same views as Christians regarding “homosexual marriage.” She said the “real threat” is the “entire school board.”
She said Valenzuela’s “witchy AF” statements on her Facebook are “a true danger” for children.
Jen Cordes, who said he represents WESD, said causing taxpayers a multimillion-dollar lawsuit is “unconscionable.” He said the board is showing “prejudice” and decided “solely on religious belief.” He noted how the board was ignorant during its last board meeting stating they didn’t know if they’d ever hired any ACU students later as teachers.
Hector Jardinello, who identified himself as a school board member for Glendale, accused ACU of equating homosexuality “with bestiality and incest.” He said Valenzuela is being attacked because she “simply exists.”
Catherine Lanting, who works in education and homeschools her children, congratulated the district for “making national news and joining a long list of school districts around the country that ostracize those who hold Christian values.” She said, “You’ve done exactly what the First Amendment sought to prevent.” She noted that the district violated its own policy on the WESD website which states they do not discriminate in their hiring policy.
Lindsay Love said “LGBTQ students” are under attack. She said “so-called Christians have used their platform to target Miss Valenzuela for being neurodivergent.” She accused people of being wrong because they don’t understand the meaning of neurodivergent.
State Senator Anna Hernandez (D-Glendale) said parents should send their children to religious schools if they care about religion.
She accused “far-right legislators” and others, “when they don’t agree with a decision that duly elected governing board makes they’re willing to attempt to overthrow our government.”
Jennifer Hernandez identified herself as a “queer youth” and accused ACU of teaching that children are going to hell if they are LGBTQ.
Virginia Hernandez said she was with a local nonprofit. She asserted that “every single day,” there are attacks on LGBTQ people at the state legislature by “so-called Christians.” She denounced the “hateful, hateful” criticism of Valenzuela.
An Arizona Community for Public Education speaker commended the “separation of church and state” by “proper institutions that serve the greater good of the community.”
Chris Galker, whose son went to school in the district, said his son was struggling with being gay and attempted suicide, so he wanted to thank Valenzuela and the school board.
Hayden Lin, a student in Gilbert and part of Support Equality Arizona Schools, called ACU “a hateful organization.” He said he goes to school every day “in a mental health crisis.”
Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan, who wore pink cat ears and identified herself as from Unitarian Universalist Justice Arizona, said it’s necessary to “dismantle systemic oppression” and said ACU “doesn’t support the core values of this district.”
First Christian Church Pastor Chuck Foreman, who disagreed with the decision, said after witnessing the “polarizing” activity outside the building, he disapproved of the raucous protesting interspersed with Bible verses.
Amanda, a teacher in the district, said she wasn’t religious but accused the board of “using your elected platform to bring your own values, and the district is demonstrating a double standard.” She asked, “Isn’t your purpose to support inclusion and not extend ostracization groups of people?”
Richard Claus, who raised his children in the district, said he was disturbed by statements made by the board that were “excessively intrusive and discriminatory.” He disliked the approach demanding that “their underlying value system must be changed.” He asked the board to “forsake the politics of exclusion and discrimination.”
Marshall Militano said he was “ashamed sometimes to tell people that I am a Christian.” He said Jesus Christ never got angry at “a person believed to be a sinner.” He said the school district doesn’t have a choice over who gets to work and attend there since it is a public school. He asserted that the “values of the organization do not match the public school.”
Crystal Carriro, who wore blue cat ears and said she lived in the district, said Valenzuela ran for office on a “kind, inclusive” strategy. She said ACU was not providing “recruitment and retention of teachers into the district.”
Jamie Casteen, who wore green cat ears, thanked the board “for standing up against religiously justified bigotry.”
Janine Gelsinger, who wore dark cat ears and said she was the director of Unitarian Universalist Justice Arizona, said it was her “job to come and speak about what my religion says.” She said LGBT people like herself are “whole, holy, and good the way we are.”
Allison Hoover introduced herself as an ACU graduate and a substitute teacher in the district with children who attend there. She said she was taught at ACU “to love each and every student no matter what their beliefs,” and was not taught to teach them her religion.
Calen Dalmada labeled the termination “a clear act of extreme left-wing, anti-Christian religious discrimination and hatred.” He said since there are so many Hispanics in the school district, and the vast majority of Hispanics identify as Christian, “the community will see through this facade.” He asked, “Are you going to purge them? Because how are you going to get their Christian beliefs out of their head?”
Beth Golden, a nurse in the district, said she was disappointed that “instead of bringing knowledge and fairness to this table, you choose to make a one-dimensional decision based on fear, ignorance, persecution and hatred.”
On Valenzuela’s Facebook post celebrating the termination, every single comment disagreed with her. On March 3, State Sen. Anthony Kern (R-Glendale) called on Valenzuela to resign, labeling the termination “absolute discrimination.” WESD has experienced a growing teacher shortage in recent years, so the contract helped alleviate that. ACU filed a lawsuit on March 9 against WESD over the termination.
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Rachel Alexander is a reporter at The Arizona Sun Times and The Star News Network. Follow Rachel on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].