Central Bucks residents speak up about transphobia and antisemitism in the community

Demonstrators hold sign sin support of LGBTQ people outside a school board meeting

A crowd turns out to respond to comments against Jewish people and transgender people made at a previous meeting of the Central Bucks School District board. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Central Bucks School District residents waited in line for hours at Monday night’s school board meeting to speak in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion — responding to events at the Nov. 9 meeting, which was marred by transphobic and antisemitic remarks made during the public comment period.

The board limited time for public comment to two hours, around 50 speakers. Some arrived three hours early Monday to get a chance to sit inside. A number of people had asked the board to move the meeting so more people could fit, but their request was denied.

Most knew they wouldn’t get the chance to speak, but stood in the dark and the rain anyway.

Spectators and speakers are admitted to the Central Bucks School Board meeting room
Spectators and speakers are admitted to the Central Bucks School Board meeting room. Attendance was capped at 70 and many were left standing in the rain. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Some held rainbow flags, and flags supporting the LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities. Some, like Adi Strigl, even danced. She called it her “inclusion dance,” jokingly. Others looked on and laughed.

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“If you can’t laugh, you’ll cry,” is Strigl’s motto. She is Jewish and has three children in the district.

“There’s a big divide in the community, I think everyone will agree on that.” But she added, “As an optimist, I’m drawn to the light. I see more and more people teaming up.”

Five new school board members were sworn in Monday night: Dr. Mariam Mahmud; Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo; Jim Pepper; Lisa Sciscio; and Debra Cannon. For many of the residents who turned out, it was their first time attending a board meeting. They said they were stirred to action after the comments in November.

During that meeting, one community member said trans women are rapists. Another community member made allegations that there are ties to the mafia in the Jewish community, and he also sought to make connections between district diversity and inclusion initiatives and “Zionism and communism.”

Most community members who attended Monday’s board meeting said those comments — and the silence from most board members that followed — are symptoms of larger anti-inclusion and anti-diversity rhetoric and action in Central Bucks. They said they wished the board had immediately denounced and condemned the statements.

The district has been at the center of heated debates around COVID-19 safety policies and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Tensions have continued to escalate. Neighbors are seen yelling at one another, and friendships have been tarnished, some community members say.

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During public comment Monday night, some residents noted a history of silence from the board following racist, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ+ comments and behaviors in and around the meetings. One community member also mentioned seeing a new board member, Debra Cannon, quote Hitler in a Facebook comment. (Cannon did not respond to this comment.)

Debra Cannon is sworn in as a member of the Central Bucks school board
Debra Cannon is sworn in as a member of the Central Bucks school board, one of five new members elected to the nine-member board. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Transphobia in Central Bucks schools

Students and parents said the behavior at board meetings serves as a model for students. Many gave personal testimony about their lived experiences.

Lily Freeman, a Jewish trans woman who is a sophomore at Central Bucks High School East, said that her school isn’t safe for LGBTQ+ students, and that the board isn’t fighting for her human rights.

“I don’t walk anywhere without my friends. A lot of times, I’m really scared to walk the halls,” said Freeman, “I feel at any moment I could be attacked, I could be assaulted, and I could be verbally abused.”

Roberta Gluck hands out flags to people waiting in line
Roberta Gluck hands out flags to people waiting in line for the Central Bucks School District board meeting. A crowd turned out to respond to comments against Jewish people and transgender people made at a previous meeting. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Jasmine Slack, a junior at Central Bucks East, spoke about her experience at Holicong Middle School. She created a petition to bring awareness to homophobia and transphobia. One comment from a student who identified as homosexual and nonbinary on the petition states, “People throw food at us, people sexually assaulted us, people lunge at us, people tell us to kill ourselves, people tell us they are going to rape us, people kick and punch us, people throw us into doors, we get tripped, grabbed, and slandered about in the hallways.”

Students are calling on the district to provide better education about gender and sexual identities, better policies that protect LGBTQ+ students from bullying, and more accountability for students who bully LGBTQ+ students.

“Kids are smart if you give them the chance to expand and look at the world around them,” said one transgender student who wished to remain anonymous for their safety.

Tabitha Dell'Angelo (left) and Jim Pepper (center) take their seats
Newly-elected Central Bucks school board members Tabitha Dell’Angelo (left) and Jim Pepper (center) take their seats after being sworn in at the Dec. 6, 2021, meeting. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Some board members, including Dana Hunter, Karen Smith, Dr. Mariam Mahmud, and Dr. Tabitha Dell’Angelo, said they do not stand by the comments made at the last meeting.

Hunter, the board president, also said everyone has the right to free speech.

TJ Kosin, a resident and leader of the local organization, the Proud American Patriots Network, agreed. Kosin mentioned the Pennsbury School District, which just lost a lawsuit filed by parents who said their free speech was being limited as they questioned the district’s equity initiatives.

“If we do not follow the law, we face potential litigation,” said Kosin.

Demonstrators hold sign sin support of LGBTQ people outside a school board meeting
Unable to get into the crowded school board meeting room, Central Bucks School District parents take shelter under a tent. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Looking forward, many parents said they are hoping the board can focus more on solving the problems inside schools. A phrase used by parents on all sides of the free speech debate was, “Let’s get back on track.”

Some also hope to have more dialogue with community members with whom they may disagree.

Lorraine Marino, a Chalfont resident, said she believes the community needs another space to discuss the issues being brought up during school board meetings. She hopes to help create one.

“It’s like the school board is the only public forum where we’re having these issues come up. It’s like we need some other forum,” Marino said. “I think it would benefit all of us if we could find some other way to come together and be able to listen to each other. If not, someone really will get hurt.”

A sudden change to health and safety plans

At the end of Monday’s meeting, the board voted, 6-3, in favor of an action item that wasn’t originally on its agenda. Members changed the district’s Health and Safety Plan by removing contact tracing from  school nurses’ responsibilities. Instead, the district will “report cases to the Bucks County Health Department.”

Board members also voted to remove the chart that explains masking expectations from page two of the Health and Safety Plan. 

School nurses in the room, including the district’s pandemic coordinator, and others were left confused by the decision.

Deneen Dry, president of the Central Bucks Educational Support Professionals’ Association and a nurse in the district, was shaking her head in the back of the room.

Dry said nurses are the only ones capable of tracing which people have been exposed after a student tests positive for COVID-19.

“It wasn’t the safe thing to do nor the right thing to do,” said Dry, “They claim to be helping out the nurses, yet they haven’t spoken to the nurses.”

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If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The hotline is staffed 24/7 by trained counselors who can offer free, confidential support. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call 1-800-799-4889. Help can also be accessed through the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741-741.

If you have experienced or witnessed an incident of bias, hatred, or bigotry, you can report it to the ADL online.

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