Human Rights Commission seeks public apology from Cox High School Administration

Frank W. Cox High School on Monday, December 4, 2016.
Frank W. Cox High School on Monday, December 4, 2016.

Virginia Beach LGBTQ students have gained public support from the city’s Human Rights Commission following the cancellation of a Gay-Straight Alliance event at Frank W. Cox High School.

The educational event, which was meant to open dialogue about the LGBTQ community, was unexpectedly cancelled by administration on Dec. 4, with the school citing a federal law that bars clubs from hosting events during school hours; however, on Jan. 30, the student-led club will host an event called “Love is Love: A Celebration of Gay-Straight Alliance.” The event will be open to the public.

The Virginia Beach HRC met Thursday night to discuss the cancellation and consider a call to action.

The Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission met Thursday to discuss the recent cancellation of an LGBT event at Cox High School. (Mariah Pohl)
The Virginia Beach Human Rights Commission met Thursday to discuss the recent cancellation of an LGBT event at Cox High School. (Mariah Pohl)

Hampton Roads Pride President and commission member Michael Berlucchi said the cancellation was done inconsistently with other club-led events at the school.

“It appears the school arbitrarily applied a federal law based on the content of the event. This systematic exclusion of students sends a damaging message,” he said. “At the minimum, cancelling the event has marginalized students who are already vulnerable.”

According to Berlucchi, the event cancellation has had impacts that reach far beyond the Virginia Beach community.

“My (LGBTQ) community is hurting. People are sending letters from all over the world to our school board,” he said.

Virginia Beach residents attended the HRC meeting to express their support for the LGBTQ community and share their thoughts on the cancelled event.

“I think this is an issue of bullying, and the school board and school principals are allowing this to happen. We should be affirming students who are standing up for those who are bullied,” said Virginia Beach resident Diane Veazy

Frank W. Cox High School Principal Randi Riesbeck initially approved the event before the last-minute cancellation, which was prompted by a complaint submitted to the school board by recently-elected school board member Victoria Manning.

Cox High School junior and HRC student member Ian Lichacz said he spoke with Riesbeck Tuesday about the cancellation.

“Dr. Riesbeck takes full responsibility for the situation and said she could have done more to communicate with upper management of the school system,” he said.

Lichacz said he also spoke with Virginia Beach Public Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence, who visited Cox High School this week to meet with the GSA.

“Dr. Spence explained that the administration’s decision to abide by federal laws was not done to exclude any club or group,” Lichacz said.

In hindsight, the superintendent said he would stand by his decision to cancel the event, according to Lichacz.

“I’m deeply hurt they would have these discussions, but not recognize the true pain of our community,” Berlucchi said. “I view this situation as a failure of leadership and it is up to us to express our disappointment and encourage them to support students. Time is of the essence.”

Following a HRC vote on a call to action, the commission has decided to recommend that the Virginia Beach City Council seek a public apology from school administration responsible for cancelling the event. The commission has advocated for the human rights of city residents since 1991.

“There is little we can do to change what happened, but we can recommend how to move forward,” HRC chair Cliff Rice said. “I believe we need a public apology, at the very least.”

The principal and superintendent have yet to issue public apologies, but Lichacz told the commission he has no doubts they both will do so if prompted.

In an interview with Southside Daily, Spence said administration made the correct decision by cancelling the event.

“I regret students were disappointed and had to set aside their planning, but I’m glad we found a positive way to move forward,” he said.

Reisbeck reiterated that she is sorry for any disappointment the change in plans caused students, but believes the correct decision was made to postpone and ultimately reschedule the event to an appropriate time.

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com

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