School board member says she did not intend to ‘make any child feel less than’

Milford. Hundreds of people attended a school board meeting in the wake of a member’s transphobic social media posts. Board president Jack Fisher said the board would not take action, but said the allegations against Dawn Bukaj could scar the school district and cause lasting harm.

| 17 Mar 2021 | 07:22

A school board member whose social media activity started a discussion about the treatment of LGBTQ students at Delaware Valley said she has compassion for everyone. But she said she will not change her mind.

“To the extent that any student was made to feel less than, I am sorry,” Dawn Bukaj said at the school board’s March 11 meeting, attended by 36 people in person and hundreds via Zoom. “That has never been my intention.”

Board president Jack Fisher said members have received emails and letters about Bukaj’s social media postings. He said the board doesn’t have the authority to remove a fellow member, or to determine if a law has been broken. He said it was up to other elected officials to decide “what the truth is.”

If the allegations against Bukaj are true, Fisher said, it could scar the school district and cause lasting harm. He said the school is committed to safety for all students at all times.

Bukaj posted and promoted comments critical of Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s former secretary of health who joined the Biden administration as assistant secretary of health, making her the first openly transgender federal official ever to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Bukaj shared a post stating “he/she is confused about what he biologically is.” Bukaj replied to another comment regarding Dr. Levine that said, “He hasn’t had any surgeries or ‘removals.’ In God’s eyes and my eyes HE is a man.” Her response was “Science,” along with a smiling emoticon.

“Science today is being used as an absolute by people with different views,” Bukaj said at the meeting. “There’s science in favor of wearing masks and science against it. There’s science in favor of climate change and science against it. Science in today’s climate is not an absolute answer to any question.”

‘We have to be careful of our words’

Fisher said Bukaj’s social media activity did not occur on school property but on her personal Facebook page, which she has since removed. He said the board can’t control the social media communications of its members, but cautioned members to “remember our mission and practice good citizenship.”

Board member Jack O’Leary agreed with Fisher. “We have to be careful of our words,” he said. “We can’t be biased. We can’t come out and say things.”

He said he was kept up at night wondering about the LGBTQ students at DV who aren’t comfortable at school. “I don’t want any child to feel uncomfortable,” he said. He wants to be able to reach out to LGBTQ students. “We can’t fix a problem until we can talk to the child that has the problem,” he said. “If the child is not comfortable coming out, then we don’t know who the child is.”

O’Leary said LGBTQ students have told him the current principal has been a lighthouse in a storm for them. He added, “I just want to get rid of the storm.”

He called Steven Teague, executive director of the TriVersity Center for Gender & Sexual Diversity, “brilliant” and his “good friend” who said “it was a good time for education.” Earlier this month, Teague wrote a letter to the school board asking for a retraction from Bukaj and offered to give the school board LGBTQ cultural competency training.

Bukaj said she will not change her beliefs because others don’t agree with her, and that she won’t apologize. She asked others to join her in turning the next page.

She said posts and messages have called her a hypocrite, homophobic, transphobic, a racist and a bigot. She said several posts called for her to be canceled. She said she doesn’t think the viewpoints she expresses outside the boardroom should be discussed in a board meeting, but that she was addressing them because her positions were creating problems for the school board, administration, and community.

School board member Corey Homer said he’d like to see a diversity club for DV students mirroring the latest research. O’Leary said he’d like to join him.

This week, the superintendent of schools, John Bell, wrote a letter to the community that the district will be doing a full review of its policies and instruction. “If you have ideas to help make DV more welcoming and inclusive, please send them to us via email at or via U.S. mail” (236 Route 6 & 209, Milford, PA 18337).

Graduates speak out

Johnny Palmadessa introduced himself as a 2018 graduate and a “very proud gay man.” He told Bukaj, “Your public posts shined a light on bigotry and hate, self-indulgence and fear mongering.”

“What you, Dawn, did was harmful. Dangerous,” he said. “And maybe you weren’t thinking it would have such a powerful ugly ripple effect — but an ugly effect it had — words reach deep down and sting and hurt and cause unbearable unnecessary pain and lasting damage. Words can change a human heart by being vicious and thoughtless, words can destroy a child’s hope. Words can make someone feel as if they don’t belong.”

Tracey Vitchers introduced herself as a 2006 DV graduate and expert on civil rights law and gender equity who has advised presidential administrations, federal and state departments of education, and members of Congress. She said school board members should model district policy, including non-discrimination policy. She said Bukaj’s statements reflect her bias against members of the transgender community and carry weight, no matter where they are said.

When Bukaj frames herself as a victim, said Vitchers, she creates a hostile environment for DV’s non-conforming students who now feel so unsafe they won’t speak publicly because they fear retaliation by their district, their classmates, and the school board. “If action is not taken to ask Mrs. Bukaj to resign from the school board, the board will also be implicit in creating a hostile environment,” she said.

Vitchers offered to recommend legal counsel to file a lawsuit on behalf any student or parent who has been adversely affected by Bukaj’s statement or any incident by members of the school staff.

In an email to the Courier, Vitchers said, “During Dawn’s non-apology, she spoke about the rights of parents. What about the rights of parents to not have their children discriminated against by a member of their local school board? What about the rights of parents to not have to worry about their kids being harmed by bigotry?”

’Will you protect my kids?’

Kim Reno said all five of her children attended DV. She read what her youngest child, Abigail Reno, wrote in a statement to the board. Abigail said two trans women who came out while attending DV were ridiculed and bullied while staff turned a blind eye. “They were pushed to transfer to a new district or go to online alternative schools by a culture of intolerance that DV bred,” said Reno. “DV culture needs to be treated as a public health threat.”

Abigail said she was open about her own queerness by middle school, and ran into threatening situations with teachers and administrators. She said she and a friend were cornered in a hallway by the then-principal, who got within inches of their faces. He threatened suspension and other punishments if he ever caught her and her friend touching again.

Abigail said the gay-straight alliance club at DV came under fire. She joined after the club had been shut down for years. The teacher running it was not comfortable with queer identity and shut down any conversation centered around queerness, Abigail said. The club was shut down that spring, despite large attendance, she said.

Elizabeth Mallard read a statement from Kateland Tribuko, who said that when she stepped into the halls of the high school, she knew the hate her mother always told her existed there. DV turned her into an “it” because of its homophobic culture. Elizabeth has a son enrolling in DV, and she wonders if he will be asked why he has two moms. She hopes that love will supplant discrimination.

John Johnson said, “I don’t know if my kids will grow up to be trans or gay,” and that he needs to know the board will protect them.

Hope Abrams said, “We all want to safeguard our kids from danger. There is a danger associated with trans kids being in our school. The danger is to them, not from them.”

She continued, “This isn’t about supporting or attacking Dawn. This is about supporting our students. All of our students. And making sure they feel that. Right now they don’t. It’s your job to change that. So do it.”

Robert Reno asked if the district has a policy against harassment and discrimination, including gender discrimination. “A member of this board has posted publicly some vicious things about transgender people, full of pseudoscience, full of snickering, over all, a slimey series of comments.”

Megan Rosenfeld said the most troubling part “was the outpouring of pain from the community. She said as a mother of four, it’s deeply deeply painful to think that they or their friends could experience something like that. She said the school community needed to come together “to decide what we all need to do better.”

Sierra Alber recounted her eight years teaching art to LGBTQ youth at TriVersity. Once a 13-year-old told her and the class that he had no one. Alber told the teen that she would be there for him. A year later, she learned that her support made the difference when he decided not to take his own life.

Christine Agrum said she knows Bukaj personally, and that her family members have become targets. “Let’s not make an example of people,” she said. “Let’s work together. Let’s recognize our differences. And let’s make DV the fantastic place it can become.”