Students who want to help the children of military families fit in at school have been in Washington, D.C. for a conference this week despite some school board members’ reservations about a speaker who will focus on the mental health of LGBTQ teens.
School staff sought board approval last week for 12 middle and high school students to attend the Student 2 Student National Training Seminar held in conjunction with the Military Child Education Coalition Global Summit. Field trips outside of North Carolina require board approval for review of travel and lodging arrangements.
The school board unanimously approved the trip, but not before board member David Hensley portrayed it as a “Trojan horse” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing” based on a cursory look through the Military Child Education Coalition’s website.
Hensley took issue with the biographies of two of the summit’s featured speakers as well as the summit’s focus on “diversity, equity and inclusion.” The MCEC Global Summit won’t involve students, though. It’s actually a professional development event for educators and health professionals.
One of the speakers, Troy Stevenson, is also slated to present during the Student 2 Student event. Stevenson is the senior campaign manager for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project, which focuses on preventing suicide among LGBTQ youth.
His biography on the event website also says that he’s worked for state-level LGBTQ rights organizations and for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
“These are the keynote speakers that we’re sending our military children to and I’m not sure this is what their parents signed up for,” Hensley said during the work session.
The student agenda for the event describes Stevenson’s presentation as dealing with the specific mental health challenges of military-connected LGBTQ youth.
Hensley also struck out at the district’s former military liaison, Rollie Sampson, who was erroneously listed on the field trip request form as handling expense invoices related to the trip. Sampson resigned earlier this year to run for a school board seat this fall.
“I’m not sure there was full disclosure as to the type of seminar that Rollie Sampson championed and signed these students up for, because this looks like a big leftist hoo-yah for LGBTQ rights,” Hensley said.
After board member Stacey Caldwell pointed out that the website detailed only the adult professional development component, Hensley asked staff to provide the agenda for the student event during the evening business meeting.
That discussion prompted two of the trip’s chaperones to intervene in defense of a program that some schools in the district have used for a decade.
“I was very concerned that they would cancel the trip,” said Renee Portfilio.”The kids have always had a choice of which workshops to go to. It has not been an issue in the past.”
Other seminars and activities on the field trip agenda cover topics like relationship-building, student leadership, how to welcome students and how to send off students moving away, and a “scavenger hunt” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Speakers include Defense Health Agency Director Lt. Gen Ronald J. Place and Brandon Watts, who grew up in a military family and went on to join the Secret Service.
Portfilio was among the first cohort of school counselors to learn how to start and organize a Student 2 Student club in 2011. That group attended a conference in San Antonio along with high school students who then started chapters at Pinecrest and Union Pines.
Union Pines has the most active chapter in Moore County, and in last year’s virtual MCEC event its participants were in the top three teams participating. Portfilio also participated in the MCEC Global Summit in 2019.
Portfilio will be working at Crains Creek for the upcoming school year, where she hopes to rebuild the Student 2 Student club. She said that two Crains Creek students are attending the D.C. training seminar this week.
She emailed the school board ahead of its July 11 meeting in support of the program and the upcoming field trip.
“I cannot help but support our MCS S2S programs and the training and participation at the MCEC Summit enough, in helping not only our military families, but ALL students who want to experience this leadership opportunity. These students work tirelessly at our schools, greeting our new students in the morning, providing professional tours of our campuses, answering questions students think are important, and they are Doing Good!” she wrote.
Later in the meeting, Hensley referred to a single sentence in Portfilio’s letter in suggesting that the trip was represented to parents as a chance to meet Moore County’s congressional representative and tour the U.S. Capitol.
One of the parent chaperones for the trip spoke during the public comment period prior to the board’s business agenda. Lore Veeneman, whose daughter attends Pinecrest, said that she probably wouldn’t attend the Trevor Project presentation. But she looked forward to other activities, specifically a session on promoting student involvement by Tom Kriegelstein, founder of the Swift Kick leadership program.
“Student 2 Student is a program that brings military and civilian students together to welcome new students, create a positive environment and support academic excellence and ease transitions,” she said.
“Transitions are tough on our kids: not just their transitions, but their friends leaving consistently. Research shows, and this is from one of the people who is speaking at that meeting … students who are involved on campus tend to have higher grades, higher retention rates, higher graduation rates and higher income after graduation.”
Once staff provided the student agenda, Vice-Chair Libby Carter read through it, noting “a multitude of other speakers and opportunities that the kids are presented with and from which they may choose.
“They're not locked in to any one of those speakers and have great flexibility,” she said. “I wholeheartedly support the program as I have in previous years.”
Stevenson’s talk will coincide with a presentation by Air Force Col. Eric Flake, a developmental behavioral pediatrician, on how teens can approach peers who may be dealing with stress and anxiety.
The board ultimately approved the field trip without an opposing vote. Board member Robert Levy, who shared Hensley’s concerns about how the trip was promoted to families, said he was reluctant to deny students the opportunity to travel to Washington.
“We need to make sure that the parents who are sending these kids on this trip understand that there may be political advocacy going on,” he said. “But I’ll leave that up to the administration. I'm not going to block the kids from going. I think it’s important, but I don’t think this was well thought out.”
Students from Pinecrest, Union Pines, Crains Creek and Southern Middle are participating in the trip. Mary Beth Thomas, a Union Pines counselor, organized the trip and is with them.
Thomas said that Union Pines is also rebuilding its Student 2 Student chapter somewhat. Since field trips and in-school MCEC seminars were put on hold for two years, most students with formal training have now graduated.
She said before going that students will choose which seminars they attend, and that she generally encourages them to spread out among a variety of topics.
“I don’t want all of my kids sitting in the same session getting the same information. We’re here to learn and soak it all in. Never have I required a student to go and sit in a certain workshop that they were not comfortable with or had no interest in,” she said
“Kids are pretty smart. They know things that are important to them and the things they're interested in learning about, so in the past they’ve always split up nicely and covered the majority of information being offered.”
Thomas said that the students participating in the field trip have been interested in giving tours to new students and helping with orientation in the past but are otherwise involved in a variety of activities: band, sports, theater. Not all of them have military parents.
“I had a couple of kids who were new to our school last year who saw what S2S did, liked the feel of it and wanted to be that person in the future that welcomes new students to school,” she said.
“It’s not just a program for military-connected kids. It's sponsored that way from a military organization but it was built on the premise of welcoming all students to your school campus, military and non military connected students, and bringing them together.”