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Virginia school district parents practice calm communication on culture war issues

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As arguments continue to flare across the country about what is best for kids in schools, one community is trying to turn the heat down. Rockingham County, Va., is in the Shenandoah Valley, and they're working to bring those who disagree about public education and transgender students to the same table and possibly the same page. From member station WMRA in Harrisonburg, Randi B. Hagi reports.

RANDI B HAGI, BYLINE: School board meetings in Rockingham County used to erupt in screaming matches over pandemic restrictions, how racial history is taught and how to treat transgender students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If God exists, God...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Stop with the socialist brainwashing of my children, and put God back in schools. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

HAGI: The yelling and screaming caused district leaders to hire a professional peace builder. That person is Catherine Barnes. Her job is to facilitate civil public discourse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CATHERINE BARNES: How do we hold on to that which is precious about values and traditions in Rockingham while at the same time adapting and growing in response to 21st century developments?

HAGI: Barnes sets a calm tone as 80 people look on. They sit at round tables in a meeting room at a small local college. All of them came with various political viewpoints and religious values.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARNES: You'll notice also that there have been some communication agreements on your table. And they're intended...

HAGI: The group is about to respond to prompted discussion questions while sharing a meal. Reporters were asked to leave for this part of the event, but later I called some participants, including Dee Grimm. The retired English teacher says she leans lightly left and thought these conversations were constructive because they started with...

DEE GRIMM: Personal stories and backgrounds because when you bring that to the table, suddenly people become human.

HAGI: One of the ground rules was trying to understand differences rather than judge them. That worked for Dave Dean. He's a lifelong county resident on the conservative side. He doesn't want anyone on the margins to be treated poorly, but he says many parents in the county want to retain control over their kids' gender identity.

DAVE DEAN: Some parents, on one side, don't want their child to have any autonomy until they leave home. On the opposite side, you have parents who are going to give their child full autonomy as soon as they're able to express themselves.

HAGI: Sometimes these conversations got tense, says Cecille Deason. One of her three kids is transgender.

CECILLE DEASON: It's very emotional because these are real things that are happening to people. One woman shared about her child attempting to take their life, and that's so hard to hear. And then you want to comfort them.

JOE SHOWKER: It was very productive and very, quite frankly, inspiring.

HAGI: Joe Showker is a retiree who says he's conservative with traditional family values that include being a good citizen and coexisting with people you disagree with.

SHOWKER: I think kids being at home with lockdowns and doing all their classes online led parents really across the nation to be more cognizant of the instruction that was going on in the buildings. That combined with the culture wars almost created a wedge between parents and schools.

HAGI: To rebuild trust between parents and schools is what Donica Hadley is hoping for. She's a college professor with three kids in the system.

DONICA HADLEY: We just - we need to do better. Our kids deserve better, and what they have seen in the last several years has not been the best of us. But it's not too late to change. Like, I still have hope.

HAGI: The dialogue initiative will conclude with a public meeting of about 150 people tonight. They will meet with the hope of, if not agreeing about anything, at least hearing each other out. For NPR News, I'm Randi B. Hagi in Harrisonburg, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRAA MAY SONG, "INTERNET TROLLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Randi B. Hagi
Randi B. Hagi has worked in the downtown restaurant scene, nonprofit sector, in horse care, and as a freelance writer and photographer since graduating from Eastern Mennonite University in 2014. Her work has been published in the Harrisonburg Citizen, Mennonite World Review, and The Mennonite. She also runs a small muscovy duck egg business out of her “farmette” in Hinton. Hagi’s roots are in West Virginia, but she can’t seem to let go of Rockingham County.