Keely Meadows has tried everything. She has calmly pleaded with the Roanoke County School Board to support LGBTQ+ and special education students. She has scolded board members for looking at their phones while she speaks. She has shouted, demanding board chair Brent Hudson apologize for “causing emotional distress” to the LGBTQ+ student community.
And still she feels like no one’s listening.
Keely, 15, is one of the youngest advocates for LGBTQ+ students in the school division. But she has repeatedly approached the podium over six months of school board meetings. Barely 5 feet tall, with long brown hair bearing vibrant, neon highlights, she has emerged as a prominent organizer of LGBTQ+ support in conservative Roanoke County.
The county school division has spent much of 2023 embroiled in issues impacting LGBTQ+ students as elections for two of the five spots on its school board approached.
In February, a Glenvar High School student used the public comment period of a school board meeting to accuse a transgender student of recording her in the girls’ bathroom; the next month, the accused student responded, also during a meeting.
In May, a parent stood up in front of the board and said there were too many rainbows and other pride-themed symbols at his children’s school; the next month, 31 parents, students and division staffers spoke during a 90-minute public comment period in defense of the LGBTQ+ community.
In August, Roanoke County became one of the first school boards in the state to adopt the Youngkin administration’s new restrictions on transgender and gender nonconforming students, which limit their rights unless they have parental sign-off.
As crowds at school board meetings swelled and a series of arrests took place, the U.S. Department of Justice’s mediation service contacted the division to offer its services. Roanoke County rejected the offer as it continued to increase law enforcement presence at its monthly meetings.
The conservative voices in the crowd calling for limitations on gender-affirming care for LGBTQ+ students at school have usually been adults; sometimes speakers say they have a child or grandchild in the division, or that they’re simply a concerned resident. They are often affiliated with one of a few local churches that have rallied several rows’ worth of attendees to school board meetings. Since June, none of the speakers supporting the new trans student policy have been local students.
The more liberal voices at meetings, meanwhile, have run the gamut. Speakers as young as elementary school age have addressed the board, and some teenagers who attend high school in the county have come back repeatedly to speak. They’ve been backed by young adults representing local diversity organizations, along with parents and several teachers who have returned again and again.
But months have passed since the August adoption of the transgender student model policies. And conservatives kept their hold on the school board in last week’s election for two seats, reelecting Hudson and installing Shelley Clemons in the open Cave Spring seat.
Both winning candidates were backed by the local Republican Party.
Mary Wilson, who ran against Clemons, picked up 45.6% of the vote. Samantha Newell, a write-in candidate who announced her run in August, received about 16% of the vote in the Catawba district that reelected Hudson.
For months, Keely has felt that the board listens to speakers who support the revised transgender student policies but ignores those who have raised concerns about it. “I’m one of those people they turn their heads at and don’t listen to. And it’s sad because I’m a student,” she said.
Hudson’s lack of response to her repeated requests to speak added fuel to the fire driving her to go up to the podium repeatedly, she said at the October meeting when she demanded an apology from the chair. “But not everybody can stand up like I can.”
‘I am not safe here’
The day after the election, Keely was back, arriving close to an hour before the 6 p.m. start of the November board meeting to find a seat near the front of the room. But the front three rows were already full, with members of a local church claiming their seats early. She took a seat in the fourth row and spent much of the meeting silently holding a sign that said in heavy black marker: “I am not safe here.”
The room, which can hold about 60 people plus school staff and board members, lacked the buzz it’s had during previous meetings. It was crowded, but not so much that anyone arriving after 5:30 p.m. was relegated to the overflow room that had to be used over the summer.
It’s been a challenging few months for Keely. She started ninth grade at Northside High School but left after a few weeks, switching back to the homeschool format that she’d discovered during COVID fit her learning style better than being in the classroom.
In October, a local pastor and former school board member, Thomas McCracken, sued her mother and a Roanoke City Council member for defamation after he and Keely got into an argument after the August school board meeting. Keely had confronted McCracken after he posted a photo of her family on social media during the meeting and, she claimed, touched her during their disagreement.
The dispute spilled into the parking lot. Police officers escorted McCracken to his car, and as he drove away, Keely shouted obscenities at him. Keely is not named directly in the lawsuit but is referred to by her initials.
But Keely has not given up. She organized a demonstration before the board meeting in September that focused on students, knowing it would be yet another meeting with high tensions after two straight months of arrests.
Her event attracted a mix of more than 60 students and adults, with speakers including Deanna Marcin, a longtime transgender rights advocate in Roanoke, and school board candidates Wilson and Newell.
But the event, Keely said, “wasn’t about politics. It was about students and what they go through because of the politics.” Keely came out as transgender in elementary school and has told the board this summer about the bullying she endured during that period; she later detransitioned, returning to life as a girl.
The success of the demonstration led Keely to think even bigger; she’s begun to plan a national event in 2024 to rally support for trans kids, she said, and wants to obtain permits for the National Mall in Washington. And she spent weeks canvassing on the weekends for Newell and Wilson, as well as for Democratic candidates seeking local and state office.
Keely looked peaceful, almost at ease, ahead of the Nov. 8 meeting, even though her preferred candidates didn’t win. “It was worth it because we provided a second option” by promoting alternatives to the conservative candidates, including a write-in choice, she said. “And thousands of people across Roanoke County took advantage of that second option.”
When she approached the podium that night, one of a dozen speakers on the public comment list, she tried a new tack, one she’s seen her adult opponents at school board meetings use: She spent part of her 3 minutes in prayer.
She prayed for equitable education for all children in the county, and for guidance for the board. “The board in front of me has not acted under you. Please lead this board in the direction of your son,” she said.
Of the seven people who spoke in favor of supporting LGBTQ+ students, she was the only student.
Facing activism fatigue
Tristan Shepherd wasn’t at the school board meeting the night after the election. She didn’t hear when resident Chris Eakin also prayed for the board and for Hudson, saying, “May he guide you to make decisions that are following the righteous path, even when the world pushes you to make different decisions.”
Tristan wasn’t at the September demonstration, either. In fact, the 17-year-old hasn’t returned to the school system’s central office, where school board meetings are held, since the night of the August board meeting. That night, as Tristan’s mother, Kerry Shepherd, spoke through tears, one person was arrested in the crowd behind them on a disorderly conduct charge.
After the chaos in the room died down, it was Tristan’s turn to speak. She summarized her comments as calling out the board for “sitting there not doing anything or listening.”
Tristan came out as transgender in seventh grade and began hormone treatment in high school. She had never spoken in front of the school board before March 2023, when she defended herself against claims another student made at the February meeting. Without naming her, the student had accused Tristan of recording her in the girls’ bathroom.
Tristan’s family asked the school to release a statement saying the incident had been investigated and found to be false, but “They wouldn’t do anything,” Kerry Shepherd said in an October interview.
On the day following that February meeting, Tristan said she was followed and taunted on the way to the school bus. She came home and told her mother she wanted to speak to the board, because that’s what the other student had done. “I wanted to try it and see if spreading my story would help.”
She was last on the list of five speakers at the March meeting. But Tristan didn’t feel that it helped, or that the board listened.
She went back in the summer, after response to the board’s efforts to limit pride-themed decor and to adopt the new model policies for transgender students exploded. She wanted other transgender people to see and hear her speak.
But now, she feels like she’s done what she can. “I’ve been avoiding the school board meetings,” she said. She says they’re not good for her mental health. “It’s draining.”
Instead, she’s focused on leaving. She’ll graduate in May, a year early, from Glenvar High, the smallest public high school in the county with about 600 students. She wants to attend college to study social work and become a therapist who works with transgender people.
Tristan isn’t the only one who’s backed away. The number of LGBTQ+ supporters speaking at school board meetings has waned over the course of the fall as a group of repeat conservative public commenters has grown.
Ryan White, a Roanoke psychiatrist who has spoken at several board meetings about challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth, said that burnout is common among political and social activists. Children and teenagers are even more vulnerable and can respond to this fatigue by slowing down or stopping their efforts — especially after the board’s “unanimously dismissive” response to their pleas, White said.
“When push comes to shove, individuals otherwise have very busy routines, with lots of pressures to worry about,” White explained.
“The natural tendency is not to keep fighting a fight where [you’re] not being heard,” he said, which may be particularly true for teens who feel intimidated by the board or law enforcement at meetings.
Add the pressure of increased law enforcement in the boardroom, “and it could certainly impact a teenager or child’s decision making in whether they want to put themselves at that kind of risk,” White said. “It’s unfortunate that it appears to be an intimidation tactic.”
As school board members made their final comments during last week’s meeting, member Cheryl Facciani responded to something that several attendees had referenced: In an August text message exchange, Facciani and board vice chair Tim Greenway were dismissive of the idea that there was tension in the school community — “Unless 20-25 people constitute community tensions,” Greenway wrote, referring to the people supporting the LGBTQ+ community at board meetings.
“I’d like to thank all of our speakers who continue to come forth. It may be 20 to 25 at times, sometimes it’s 16,” Facciani said during the meeting, referencing the dozen public comment speakers plus four presenters from Back Creek Elementary School that night.
“I’m pleased that we’re still able to exercise our First Amendment rights here and I think it’s important that everybody’s voices be heard.” She then reminded the room, “We still have a majority, which is 50 plus one, and this board will continue to operate as they’ve been voted for.”
Despite the disconnect some residents are feeling with the board over the new LGBTQ+ student policies, Superintendent Ken Nicely said by email Thursday that his frequent school visits show that “Teachers, students, staff, and principals are being very effective in creating and nurturing school and classroom climates in which students can experience a sense of belonging and mutual respect.”
“The overall mindset of our staff is that everyone deserves respect, compassion, and care, even as we focus on our primary mission of student learning,” he said. “I have not heard any concerns about LBGTQ students not feeling supported at school by staff.”
Keely said she’s been able to talk with Nicely about options for continuing her education in Roanoke County. Hudson still refuses to speak with her, she said, after initially agreeing to a conversation if her mother were also present.
Keely’s mother, Tiffany Sandifer, is proud of her daughter’s persistence and passion. Sandifer has spoken in support of LGBTQ+ youth at every school board meeting since June, and she said in an October interview with her daughter that she’ll “give free mom hugs” to any Roanoke County student who wants one. “You can always come hang out with us,” she said. “If you don’t have anybody to talk to … yes, you do.”
And Kerry Shepherd plans to continue advocating for transgender students after Tristan graduates and goes to college. She said that although there’s a small group of openly transgender students at Glenvar High — perhaps four or five — there may be more students who are transgender who haven’t come out yet.
“They see the bullying that goes on, the dead-naming that goes on” for transgender students at school, Shepherd said, referring to the act of calling someone by a previous name they no longer use. “So some of these kids are waiting” to come out so they don’t have to face their fears of dealing with students, their school and the school board and the public.
In the meantime, Keely will be there at board meetings, holding a sign or waving a small rainbow flag. She’ll keep talking to the school board members, 3 minutes at a time.