Lately, when Roanoke County School Board chair Brent Hudson gets up from his seat during meetings to congratulate student athletes or present awards to staffers, two uniformed deputies of the county sheriff’s office go with him.
They stand in front of the dais where Hudson and the other four school board members often pose for photos with the awardees. Then the deputies return to their seats, one in each corner behind the dais. Each wears a tactical vest emblazoned with SHERIFF in block letters as they watch the room.
The two deputies are joined in the boardroom and the halls of the central office by up to a dozen combined sheriff’s deputies and officers from the Roanoke County Police Department.
Though it’s typical for a police officer to be on the scene at public meetings, law enforcement presence dramatically increased over the summer as Roanoke County School Board meetings repeatedly drew large crowds asking to speak about two of the division’s new policies: one to limit pride-themed classroom decor, and the other to adopt the Youngkin administration’s new, more restrictive rules for dealing with transgender students. For two months, the crowd had almost unanimously asked the board not to pass the policies, but in each case, the board did so unanimously.
Officers arrested two people on trespassing charges at the July school board meeting after they refused to leave the room during a boisterous exchange between attendees and Hudson that led Hudson to order the room cleared. Hudson, a major with the local sheriff’s office, flashed his badge that night after one of the people who got arrested approached him during the exchange, an action the county sheriff later told The Roanoke Times was within reason.
A few days later, Hudson and vice chair Tim Greenway received a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service offering to mediate “community tensions.”
Roanoke County schools superintendent Ken Nicely rejected the offer, denying widespread tension within the community. And a week later, the sheriff’s deputies appeared at the dais for the August school board meeting.
That night, another person was arrested.
And as summer turned to fall, a growing division between liberal and conservative attendees at school board meetings has crystalized. Now, it’s unclear how long the increased police presence will last despite earlier claims from the school division and board members that community tension wasn’t a problem.
Documents show RCPS denied conflict when Department of Justice offered to mediate
The Department of Justice Community Relations Service contacted the school board on July 31, just days after news outlets reported on two arrests at the July 27 board meeting.
Hannah Levine, a conciliation specialist in the office, said by email the CRS was “aware of ongoing community tensions in Roanoke County” following the release of the new model policies for transgender students. “I’d like to connect to see if we might be able to offer support and services as you work to manage conflict within the community related to this.”
Levine noted in her email that the CRS “serves as ‘America’s Peacemaker,’ preventing and responding to community tensions and hate crimes” along with bullying, bias and discrimination. She didn’t say how the agency learned about the conflict, or whether it was asked to intervene.
It’s unclear how long the message sat in Hudson’s and Greenway’s inboxes before they forwarded the message to superintendent Ken Nicely.
But conservative news website Daily Wire reported on the offer to Roanoke County on Aug. 8, at which point school board members recoiled at the accusation of conflict in the community, according to correspondence obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
In a group text message among five participants, Greenway objected to a news headline about the offer that cited “community tensions.”
“That’s what’s wrong here,” he wrote. “‘Community tensions,’ there are no community tensions. Unless 20-25 people constitute community tensions,” Greenway said, indicating the lineup of LGBTQ+ supporters that had dominated the public comment portion of the meeting for two months straight.
“That’s absolutely right, Tim!” board member Cheryl Facciani responded. “Great point!! We don’t have a conflict.”
Greenway suggested not responding, saying the division’s policies speak for themselves. “We respect everyone already. No need to get in the weeds with anyone. Everyone is safe in our schools as it should be.”
The next morning, Nicely spoke with State Superintendent Lisa Coons, a Youngkin appointee, who according to an email from Nicely to the board members said that he should respond and “clearly decline the offer” rather than ignore it.
Nicely then wrote to Levine, “We have heard from local citizens from across the spectrum and there does not seem to be any widespread, ongoing community tension in Roanoke County citizens regarding the model policies.” He downplayed the two arrests, saying “neither person had a connection with our school system” and one of the two people lived outside the county. “We are not in need of your services and respectfully decline your offer,” he concluded.
That afternoon, Hudson said he gave an interview to Fox News, commenting afterward to board members by text that “they didn’t make it political and hopefully it will be good for us.”
The same afternoon, Cheryl Facciani questioned the CRS’ motivation in an email message to board members, wondering if it was an “act of intimidation.” She and Greenway both wondered if other school divisions had received similar correspondence.
In response to questions about whether other school divisions had received similar offers, a Department of Justice spokesperson said by email that its services are voluntary and include a confidentiality clause to “foster trust and ensure the privacy of all parties involved.”
The DOJ office, which was created by Congress in 1964, “has no law enforcement role and is required to remain a neutral party while it assists state and local units of government, private and public organizations, law enforcement and community groups in resolving conflicts,” the spokesperson said by email.
In August, the board unanimously passed the VDOE trans model policies wholesale, despite more than 80% of the speakers during public comment that night expressing concerns that they would be too restrictive and would foster discrimination of LGBTQ+ students.
Five days later, Reps. Ben Cline and Morgan Griffith penned a letter to Hudson, “to urge” the school board to continue to reject offers from CRS. “The parents, elected school board members, and Roanoke County taxpayers are much better suited to make important decisions about Roanoke County school matters than unelected bureaucrats from Washington, D.C.,” it said.
After denying ‘community tensions,’ law enforcement presence increased at school board meetings
It may have put on a cool demeanor in responding to the DOJ, but the Roanoke County School Board increased the police presence at meetings even after it responded to the letter.
Law enforcement had first begun to tick up in June. On June 13, Hudson asked superintendent Nicely by text message if he had requested “an extra law enforcement officer” for the meeting on June 15. “Due to the circumstances and today’s front page article in The Times, I’d say we should.”
Hudson was referencing Roanoke Times coverage of the May school board meeting, during which real estate broker Damon Gettier made accusations during public comment that specific staff members were using rainbow decor and pride-themed displays to indoctrinate children. He did so despite a rule for public comment that complaints about specific staff members be directed to school administrators.
The recording of that meeting shows that at least one sheriff’s deputy was present inside the boardroom at the June meeting.
But that was the only time a school board member or division staff member raised a discussion about having extra law enforcement at meetings by text or email, according to a Freedom of Information Act request covering June through September.
The county police department typically provides an officer at school board meetings. “These are off-duty assignments” filled by a police department supervisor, explained county public information officer Amy Whittaker by email. “If the department does not have enough officers to fill the off-duty assignments, they ask the Sheriff’s Office to assist.” When asked for the policy or other document that states how those posts are assigned, she said no such document existed.
Hudson declined to speak on the matter, saying by email that Nicely makes decisions with local law enforcement about security at school board meetings.
When asked Friday about increased law enforcement at meetings, Nicely said the division consults with the police department to determine the presence necessary at meetings, and that need can fluctuate depending on anticipated attendance or topics of discussion. Nicely also sometimes speaks with board members about security measures, he said.
The school division pays for the officers’ time.
Nicely said that after the large attendance at the June school board meeting, the police department advised that if large crowds continued, additional officers would be recommended “at least for a few months, for everyone’s safety, to make sure things don’t get out of hand.” He said additional officers also serve to provide reinforcements for the safety of officers on location. “We’re trying to be more proactive instead of reactive,” Nicely said.
That’s one reason the school division changed its system for public comment sign-ups at school board meetings, Nicely explained: to gauge advance interest in each meeting.
Previously, attendees could sign up to speak as they arrived at the school board meeting. After the two arrests in July, the county started requiring speakers to sign up online or by phone by 8 a.m. the day of a school board meeting, and to sign in with photo identification by 5:30 that evening to confirm their spot on the list.
He said additional factors may warrant a request for more officers. “If people are planning to stage a protest or something like that,” the division might learn about it through social media or get information from the police department. “Based on those kinds of variables, we can respond appropriately.”
Nicely said that having officers distributed throughout the room allows them to “pinpoint any issues” and address individual situations that may arise in the crowd rather than clear the room if there’s a disruption during the meeting.
The increased law enforcement has created anxiety for some residents who have spoken during public comment at meetings. Kerry Shepherd, the parent of a transgender high school student, was speaking during the August school board meeting when an arrest took place. Shepherd had become emotional during her remarks, and Hudson said she could have a few extra seconds to wrap up her comments. A few attendees shouted encouragement for her to continue, and when officers began to approach them, Brent Brewer called out that the chair should be the one seeking order in the meeting, rather than the officers.
As Brewer was cuffed and led out of the room, Shepherd remained at the podium, appearing frozen. “I was afraid to turn around because I thought they were coming up there for me” because she wasn’t returning to her seat, she said. “It was really intimidating.” Shepherd said she knew some of the officers from other meetings, “and they had always been really nice to me. But there were so many, like every corner of the building, and in the room itself, and I was sure they were coming to me.”
Brewer, the parent of a transgender child, was charged with disorderly conduct. He was later found guilty.
Division among school board meeting attendees has increased. How will RCPS respond?
School board meeting attendance and public speaker lineups have varied widely over the 10 months since Hudson was installed as board chair. But the speaker signup list exploded after Gettier’s accusations at the May meeting, and did not immediately wane after the new signup procedure was implemented.
In June, 31 people spoke to the board during the public comment period, all but one speaking in support of teachers and staff and asserting support of LGBTQ+ students. The other speaker was a division staffer who talked about a school nutrition issue.
At the July meeting, 27 people spoke, all in support of LGBTQ+ students and/or asking the board not to pass the décor policy and the transgender student policy.
Again in August, 27 people spoke ahead of the board’s unanimous approval of the trans model policy. But that meeting was a turning point, with a mix of views on display. Five of the 27 people spoke in favor of the model policy, often citing their Christian faith and parental rights as they pushed the board to approve the policy.
In September, 21 people spoke. Six were in support of the board and the model policy.
At the October meeting, which was rescheduled to a day earlier than its usual slot on the third Thursday of the month, only 13 people spoke. But the divide was even more clear: Five of the 13 supported the board and the model policy, and all five of them were from the same local church.
The same people have spoken to the board, sometimes four or five months in a row, pleading for policies they say respect LGBTQ+ students. Fourteen of the speakers in July were also among the 31 speakers at the June meeting.
But now the opposing side favoring parental rights is seeing repeat speakers, some of whom have used part of their three-minute window to recite prayers or scripture verses. In October, speaker Daniel Bynum slammed what he described the LGBTQ+ community as “trying to dominate our children and make them hypersexualized,” adding, “The idea that children choose their gender is absurd and demonically deranged at best.”
It’s uncertain what will happen at the next school board meeting on Nov. 8, just one day after the election for two seats on the Roanoke County School Board. The board will retain a majority of conservative members even if both Samantha Newell and Mary Wilson win against their Republican-backed opponents. Wilson is running against Shelley Clemons for the open seat in the Cave Spring district. Newell announced her write-in campaign against Hudson in the Catawba district at the August school board meeting.
Nicely said he’s not sure how long discussion of the transgender student policy will continue, which he noted has begun to evolve to a discussion of wider social issues. “We don’t currently have a policy that says you can only speak about things on the agenda,” he said, as some other school divisions do.