Hundreds of demonstrators lined the street in front of South Whidbey High School on Friday afternoon to voice their support for — or opposition to — school board education policies.
Around 140 community members organized on Maxwelton Road on June 11 to protest what their announcement flier termed “indoctrination of our children.” They were met by over 360 counter-protesters, nearly half of whom were South Whidbey School District students, who marched to the protest site from nearby South Whidbey Community Park in support of the school board’s progressive actions.
The original protest was organized by Washingtonians for Change, or WA4Change, a grassroots organization which “empowers conservatives to use their voice, talent and skill to help return Washington State back to the Republic form of government” and disavows the Democratic party as a purveyor of communism, according to its website.
Protesters’ grievances included the saturation of “critical race theory” into the school’s curriculum and the presence of the Black Lives Matter banner, which has been hanging on a fence on school property for the last year.
Maureen Greene, wife of school board member Damian Greene and one of the protest organizers, said she felt the presence of the banner was purely political.
“In our community, there are very few people of color,” she said on the John Carlson radio program Thursday, June 10. “Most of the kids are white. I saw no reason to put it there other than they were trying to make a statement, and it has totally divided the community.”
Counter-protesters, however, saw the issues differently.
The counter-protest was organized and led by United Student Leaders, or USL, a student activist group founded by South Whidbey High School students Maggie Nattress and Annie Philp. To them, the counter-demonstration was about protecting student voices.
“We’re the ones who came to the school with these issues; it wasn’t the other way around,” Philp said, adding that community members trying to bypass students’ right to have a voice in their own education is “way out of line.”
USL students were the first to petition the school district for the new ethnic studies class, and USL student Jackson Murphy initiated the process to put up the Black Lives Matter banner.
To them, Philp said, these issues aren’t political. Rather, they are necessary components of an honest and comprehensive education — an education that goes beyond what Nattress called the “whitewashed” version of history taught in many American high schools — that will prepare students to live and work in a multicultural global community.
“If all students aren’t able to understand the systems of oppression that certain students are facing more so than others, then they are going to perpetuate those systems,” Philp said.
The fact that Whidbey Island is a predominantly white community makes this type of education even more important, she added.
WA4Change protesters also expressed concern over the district’s comprehensive sex education curriculum, which they considered age-inappropriate.
“My biggest concern is that they’re taking away parental rights of understanding the curriculum in the school,” said protester Deanne Dewitt. “They’re not letting parents see the curriculum to know if this is something they want their child to learn.”
South Whidbey School District’s sex education curriculum is available online. Superintendent Josephine Moccia said the district always hosts a presentation of the curriculum for parents and provides information on how to opt out, if parents wish to do so.
Elementary sex education includes topics such as body autonomy and consent, with human development and puberty added in fifth grade. Part of the curriculum involves answering all students’ questions “with accuracy and scientific reality,” Moccia said.
USL students support comprehensive sex education and are advocating for LGBTQ-inclusive sex education curriculum.
A third organization, People of Whidbey Elegantly Resisting, had also planned to stage a counter-protest to WA4Change, but decided to let the students take the lead when they heard about USL’s event.
The side-by-side demonstrations on Friday played out peacefully with little interaction between the two groups.
Correction: A previous version of this article contained a quote which incorrectly stated that the South Whidbey school board canceled in-person board meetings and only allowed public comments of 125 written characters or fewer.
In-person public meetings were canceled by Gov. Jay Inslee in Proclamation 20-28 on March 24, 2020. School board chair Brook Willeford clarified that South Whidbey School Board Policy #1400 allows for public comment but does not specify a length allotment. Willeford said the board has responded to many public comments and questions since board meetings went virtual last year.