Some Atlee High School students are being suspended this week following their participation in a student-organized walkout on March 18 in protest of the Hanover County School Board’s policies on transgender students.
Atlee parent Christopher Berg said Monday that he was notified by a letter that day from William Hortz, Atlee’s assistant principal, that Berg’s youngest child, Em Berg, a nonbinary ninth-grader, would be suspended for three days starting Tuesday for refusing “to comply with the directives of the Atlee High School Administration and participated in an unapproved student walkout during the instructional day.”
Since last fall, Hanover parents, students and the community at large have been publicly responding from all directions to the school board’s handling of state-mandated policies that affect transgender students — mandates that, in part, the school board chose not to enact despite lawsuits and the threat of continued legal action.
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The suspension letter to Berg said that if the student chooses to participate in a “professional learning session with AHS Administrators” on April 18, the suspension will be reduced to two days.
Berg filed an appeal Monday afternoon. He questioned school officials’ reasoning, noting that a letter from the principal to parents on the day of the walkout said classes proceeded “without disruption.”
Four reasons were cited for the suspension, including “interfering with learning outside the classroom; refusal to comply with requests of staff in a way that interferes with the operation of school; failure to be in one’s assigned place; and inciting or causing a substantial disturbance to the operation of school or the safety of staff and/or students.”
It’s unclear how many Atlee students are being suspended this week. During the protest on March 18, dozens of students walked out of school around 2:10 p.m., roughly an hour and a half before the end of the school day. They stood in front of the school, while parents and LGBTQ supporters stood across Atlee Station Road off school property.
When reached by phone Tuesday, Atlee’s Hortz referred questions to Hanover spokesman Chris Whitley.
Whitley said by email Tuesday that Atlee school administrators were still working through the discipline process, but that they had issued “multiple suspensions” for students who didn’t adhere to Hanover’s code of student conduct. He said he could not provide details about specific students.
Whitley noted what Wheeler said to the school community before and after the walkout, “students are expected to follow all behavior and attendance requirements” under the code of conduct “by reporting to and staying in their designated, supervised areas during instructional time.” Those who don’t will be held accountable per the code of conduct, Whitley said.
He added that the code of conduct specifies that parents and guardians have the right to appeal, and per the code, that students “will remain suspended while the appeal is pending.” Possible outcomes of an appeal could be that the discipline is upheld or reduced, the discipline record is expunged or that language in the discipline letter is modified.
Berg, who also has a senior at Atlee, questioned school officials’ reasoning, particularly the infractions that refer to interference outside the classroom — which the student code of conduct cites as examples as “excessive noise, interrupting a class” — as well as the reference to “substantial disturbance.”
Berg pointed to Wheeler’s letter to the school community that Friday afternoon following the walkout.
In that letter, Wheeler called the walkout a “non-threatening demonstration,” and wrote that “...during the course of the demonstration, instruction for students who did not participate proceeded as normal and without disruption. At no time were students or staff in the building in danger.”
Berg’s appeal also challenged the idea that participating students were unsupervised, as stated by Wheeler’s message to the community on that Friday afternoon. Back then, Wheeler said “students are not permitted outside of the school unsupervised as a matter of safety.”
Berg wrote in his appeal that he was present during the walkout, and “observed no less than 5 school employees present at all times and monitoring the situation.” With that student-to-staff ratio, “and the fact that you were aware of the event in advance — the protest does indeed appear to have been well supervised,” he wrote.
Berg said Monday by phone that before this suspension, Em, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, has never been in trouble.
“They’ve never gotten called into the principal’s office for anything,” Berg said. “This is ... the first infraction.”
Berg said the family recognized that discipline was likely after the walkout, but said a three-day suspension seems too harsh. The family is unsure about Em meeting with school administrators in April, as was offered to reduce the suspension by one day.
“I thought it was probably going to happen,” Em said Tuesday, referring to a disciplinary response, though they had doubts last week when nothing happened.
“I think what I did was the right thing — I’m not too upset about it,” Em said, though they are worried about their friends who may be affected academically by the missed school work.
Em offered this message to Hanover’s school board members: “We know what’s going on is unfair,” they said. “I just want [the board] to understand that ... all we want is to be treated equally.”