Parents, students speak for and against “I Am Jazz” video
By Antonio Sanchez
Emotions ran high during the beginning of last week’s Saline Area Schools Board of Education meeting, as students and parents both praised and condemned the district’s decision to have elementary students watch a video telling the story of a transgender child.
On Dec. 7, Saline Area elementary students participated in a reading of “I Am Jazz,” a children’s book that tells the story of Jazz, a transgender child, and how she learned and accepted her female identity. The autobiographical picture book was co-authored by Jazz Jennings, a transgender television star and writer. The book was read aloud to students that day via a five-minute YouTube video that includes portions of the book narrated by county community leaders, including Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor and Chelsea School District Superintendent Julie Helber.
According to Scot Graden, superintendent of Saline Area Schools, between 80 and 100 students at each of the elementary schools were removed from the reading at their parents’ requests. Absenteeism was also higher than it was on the same Friday a year ago, Graden said.
More than 20 parents and students spoke out about the video during Tuesday’s standing-room-only board meeting. Throughout the nearly hour-long public comment, the board’s trustees heard just about every kind of reaction to the district’s decision to view the “I Am Jazz” video.
Peter Tchoryk, a parent with a transgender son, spoke in favor of the book and the classroom activity, saying it helps create a positive conversation for kids like his son.
“Just a couple weeks ago he did speak to his class and it’s kind of an amazing thing because kids get it,” Tchoryk said. “In fact, what happens is they understand my son and then they start thinking about their own differences.”
Student Brianna Camero-Sulak said she supported the “I Am Jazz” video not only as a student and volunteer in the community but also as a sister to a transgender brother.
“I can tell you from years of this that it’s not an easy road so having this type of space, this type of grouping filled with people in solitude, in support, in love really fills my heart,” Camero-Sulak said. “There’s been many times where my brother has almost left this world because of the lack of support and the lack of love and the hatred he had faced in school and that’s why I do so much for the community is because of him, for him, because he deserves to stay here and be loved just like any other person.”
Michael Rodriguez, a transgender student and junior at Saline High School, said although he didn’t participate in the reading, he was happy to see the school district embrace the story’s themes of inclusivity.
“I figured out I was transgender when I was in seventh grade and I had a very hard time with it,” Rodriguez said. “I started having really bad psychological issues and I ended up attempting suicide seven different times in the eighth grade and I just think it’s really cool that we have come such a long way and I have come such a long way.”
Richard Pop, a father who said he spoke on behalf of several families in the area, questioned the district’s decision to read the book to elementary students at a young age.
“We need to be sensitive to the integrity to the minds of a child K-5,” Pop said. “Think about being a child – think of my younger boy wanting to be a dinosaur, okay, a T-Rex and guess what, for that week, he’s a T-Rex but by the second week, he’s not a T-Rex anymore. That’s a very basic analogy.”
Former teacher Tom Frederick, who ran for the Board of Education in November, criticized the school district’s event in its entirety, saying he removed his daughter from attending the school reading.
“My strong feeling that the process for the “I Am Jazz” event that was followed, to plan it, prepare it and present it to our children was rushed, ill-timed and carried out with recklessness and a lack of credentialed judgement and dare I say dismissively usurping parental authority,” he said.
Other parents questioned the district’s communication about the video, claiming not enough prior knowledge was provided to parents before the video was scheduled to view.
“When my students participated in the sex ed program last year, we were given months in advance,” said Nicole Rogan, mother of three students with the district. “I felt very honored in this because we were given a lot of time to go over the material with our children before it happened in the school for us to talk about it…[In regards to the “I Am Jazz” video] I felt like I didn’t have enough time to have a discussion with my child and I felt conflicted because now there’s going to be this happening and transgender students are going to witness people walking out.”
As the meeting concluded, departing trustee Karen Delhey thanked those in attendance for participating in the public comment.
“I appreciate everyone here who spoke,” Delhey said. “I’d like to give thanks to this board – we all are here because we care.”