Trustee Christopher Pope resigns from the Visalia Unified school board after making “negative sexual orientation” comments to a gay teacher over the summer
VISALIA – Visalia Unified trustee Christopher Pope resigned last week over disparaging comments he made to a gay teacher about his sexual orientation at a meeting to discuss an LGBTQ-positive proclamation over the summer.
Pope announced his resignation from the board shortly after the meeting began but before trustees were about to vote on item 13.1 to “discuss and consider censure of Trustee Pope.” Censure is largely a symbolic gesture reprimanding a public official for inappropriate conduct, in this case, Pope’s comments to Golden West High School teacher Ben Cummings at a one-on-one lunch meeting in June.
“It’s with sadness, a lot of prayer, and soul searching, that I submit my resignation,” Pope said.
Cummings spoke during public comment after Pope’s resignation. He shared his initial goal was only to have the school board pass a proclamation recognizing June as Pride Month as a show of support for the LGBTQ community. Cummings approached the school board in June about passing a proclamation but it was left off the June 22 agenda, with board president Juan Guerrero telling local media the district was working on the wording of the proclamation.
“This small act would have been a way to show our queer community that you believe in supporting marginalized voices,” Cummings said.
With less than a week left in the month, Cummings said Pope reached out to him and invited him to a lunch meeting to discuss the proclamation. Cummings said Pope made repeated comments about his sex life and the sex life of queer men including that being gay is a choice, that gay men live a more promiscuous lifestyle, that Cummings “shouldn’t be talking to kids about what [he does] in the bedroom],” and that Cummings request for a proclamation was “waving my arms saying, look at me, I’m gay, be proud of me.”
“During that lunch meeting, Mr. Pope made statements about my sexuality that were humiliating, upsetting and frustrating …,” Cummings said, “… as many times as I tried to convert the conversation from sexual relations, Mr. Pope continually brought it up and made clear it was something to be ashamed of.”
During his resignation, Pope apologized for hurting Cummings, regretted not having a mediator at the meeting and hoped his resignation would allow the board to move forward from an incident which as caused “tension in our community.”
“I want my resignation to be an olive branch, a peace offering, if you will,” the former VUSD teacher said. “It’s time for the board to return to the business. It’s what’s best for our kids.”
Cummings went on to say that after he asked for the school district to hold Pope accountable for his actions that the trustee began telling them Cummings had called him “homophobic” and “hateful” during their meeting.
“We all make mistakes, but when we make those mistakes we have a responsibility to fix them and resolve them,” Cummings said. “We instead doubled down and attempted to smear our victims in order to protect ourselves which makes it much harder to accept forgiveness, much less, for us to forget.”
Guerrero said the district received a complaint from an employee about Pope but was unable to divulge the employee’s name without violating the district’s privacy policies. He said the district retained Leslie Ellis of Ellis Investigations to conduct an investigation of the complaint. The investigation and its findings were unanimously approved in closed session by a 6-0 vote, as Pope was recused from the vote.
“Mrs. Ellis completed the investigation and submitted her investigative findings to the district which concluded Mr. Pope made negative sexual orientation-based comments to the district employee,” Guerrero said.
“The board does not condone Mr. Pope’s actions,” Guerrero said.
The district released a statement following the meeting stating the board “respects the right of individual board members to exercise their free speech rights and invites vigorous discussion and debate, which leads to better educational outcomes for our students. The board expects each board member to conduct himself or herself with dignity and to respect all other board members, students, staff, and members of the community. This Board will not condone conduct that falls below these standards.”
The district pointed out it has made continuous efforts to build a school community focused on compassionate and kind learning, included many trainings for its staff to ensure practices, policies and procedures are inclusive of all students, staff and families, and that those efforts were acknowledged by the Equality California Institute in its 2019 Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, where Visalia Unified School District was identified as the only school district in the Central Valley to receive the distinction as Top Tier based on survey criteria analyzing school climate, cultural competency training, inclusive curriculum, and suicide prevention.
“Everyone who steps foot on our campuses or serves our District should be treated with understanding and respect,” the statement read.
Support on all sides
Before and after Cummings’ comments, community members showed their support for Cummings and the queer community as well as Pope.
Crestwood Elementary kindergarten teacher Raul Gonzalez, who has a master’s in multicultural and multilingual education, said the district and community of Visalia must admit it is uncomfortable and unprepared to deal with many of these issues. He called for greater training for teachers and more education for students on how to identify their own biases and work to overcome them.
“Mistakes have been made here, but it is a learning opportunity,” Gonzalez said. “We must seize this moment. This is a time to teach. Teach our students, our parents our educators and our community at large that we have to be inclusive of all members of our community, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and asexual. This is a time to learn we all have biases.”
Brittany Hansen, who formerly taught at Visalia Charter Independent Study (VCIS), said she found the issue very confusing for herself as well as young people. She shared a story of her friend’s daughter who was asked to a school dance by a boy. The girl developed a crush on the boy and was then shocked to find out the boy was a transgender girl. She said the girl felt tricked but didn’t want to hurt the “boy’s” feelings and also pressure that if she didn’t go to the dance with “him” she would be ridiculed by others as transphobic.
“In a culture where social media likes and followers have replaced the family, kids have branded and marketed themselves,” Hansen said. “A person’s sexuality was once a private and personal matter. Today it has become a PSA. Pressure to identify is heavy and real. If your child is only straight, they are considered a prude.”
Another parent, Nate Winter, said he wanted to personally thank Pope for the “honorable way he served.” He said he has known the former teacher and trustee for 20 years and found him to be a man of character and said he believes he is a “man of truth” who “believes in inclusivity” but of course, “no one knows anyone else’s heart completely.” He said it appears as though Pope had a sincere desire to discuss the proclamation otherwise he wouldn’t have called a meeting with the person proposing it.
“It’s unfortunate his name was sullied in this way,” Winter said.
Taking the district to task
“In light of Mr. Pope’s resignation, however, the board’s consideration of a formal censure on this matter is moot, but the board’s commitment to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment at our schools continues,” Guerrero said
After the statement, the board took up item 13.2 to “discuss and consider action to a form task force to develop a resolution acknowledging the district’s commitment and support of the LGBTQ+ community.” Interim Superintendent Doug Cardoza said staff felt it was important to pull together a task force to discuss future support for LGBTQ students and staff. Trustee Megan Casebeer Soleno asked for at least one student representative on the task force and Guerrero said he wanted a resolution in place by March 31 before the board unanimously approved the motion.
“I’m asking people to roll up their sleeves, have a little discussion, debate, whatever it takes, and then come up with a resolution they can bring to the board at least in the next quarter,” Guerrero said.
Cummings said he decided to share his story during public comments at the meeting because this is not the first time he has faced “humiliating words from a teacher and administration.” Twenty years ago, Cummings said he was a student in the district when he first experienced prejudice in the district. He said 20 years later, the district is still struggling with the same conversation over the LGBTQ community. He said he hopes the task force is the start of a more inclusive district which can make meaningful progress to bridge the divide with queer students and community members.
“We have a responsibility to protect every single one of our queer community members and I ask this task force be formed and we work as hard as we can to provide the resources our queer kids and queer community members need in order to make sure our Visalia Unified never has to face this again,” he said. “And we don’t have to, in 20 years, have this same conversation.”
Another trustee vacancy
Pope’s vacancy on the board comes at the first official meeting of the person it appointed to fill the last vacancy. Catalina Blair was provisionally appointed to the board at special meeting on Nov. 12 through an extremely public and transparent process to replace John Crabtree as the Area 4 representative after he moved out of the district on Oct. 1. During the forum-formatted special board meeting, candidates answered five questions from a moderator submitted by labor groups, board members, the student representative to the board and a parent group.
The board has laid out a similar format for filling Pope’s Area 6 seat by provisional appointment. On Dec. 2, 2021, a screening committee will post the names of applicants who will be invited to participate in an interview. On Dec. 9, 2021, the board will interview applicants for the vacant position in an open meeting. The board will, at that time, consider making the provisional appointment and the selected individual will be administered the oath of office.
Whomever the board appoints to the position will serve until the next regular election, which will be held in November 2022. At that time, the Area 6 voters will elect a candidate to serve the remainder of the term trough 2024.
Applicants must be at least 18 years of age, a California citizen, a registered voter and a resident in Trustee Area 6. The application packet may be picked up in person at the Visalia Unified School District Office, 5000 W. Cypress Avenue, Visalia. Interested applicants must complete the packet and mail it to the VUSD District Office or email it to Interim Superintendent Doug Cardoza at [email protected] by 4 p.m. on Nov. 29, 2021. For more information, please contact the VUSD Superintendent’s Office at 559-730-7522.