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Bringing civility back to the Rockingham County Public Schools community

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Randi B. Hagi
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About 80 local residents, parents, and educators gathered at Eastern Mennonite University on Tuesday for the first large group discussion of the community dialogue process.

School board meetings have become a flashpoint for culture wars and political polarization in recent years. One local district is trying to talk through those conflicts. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Rockingham County, like many districts across the country, has seen school board meetings become increasingly fraught with conflicts over pandemic restrictions, transgender students, and how racial history is taught – sometimes to the point of attendees screaming and yelling at one another and school officials.

But this district is intentionally trying to re-instill civility. Earlier this year, Superintendent Oskar Scheikl and a small advisory group convened multiple dialogue sessions with 23 county residents and educators – coming from diverse ideological views and backgrounds. That group presented a report to the school board in October, and on Tuesday, they expanded the discussion group to about 80 participants.

[sounds of people talking]

OSKAR SCHEIKL: There are so many people in the community who want to discuss topics that are difficult, but do it in a respectful way, and that's why we're here.

Over the next few months, this large group will discuss questions about the purpose of public education, the strengths of Rockingham County Public Schools, and what it would take for all students to feel welcome and supported.

Catherine Barnes is a faculty member with Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. She's facilitating the process.

CATHERINE BARNES: How do we hold onto that which is precious about values and traditions in Rockingham, while at the same time, adapting and growing in response to 21st century developments? What are the values and traditions we want to affirm, while also meeting the needs of all of those who now consider Rockingham home?

The group will also receive input from the 11th grade English students of all four county high schools in January, and we'll have more extensive coverage as the process unfolds.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.