Fargo School Board meeting reveals mixed reactions over district's stance on transgender law

Speakers took to the stand during the Fargo School Board's public comment period to voice both support and opposition regarding the superintendent's comments regarding a new transgender law.

A woman faces away from the seated school board, presumably toward a crowd, holding a sign that says "bigotry kills."
Jess English Teitelman holds up a sign during the Fargo School Board meeting on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

FARGO —Eighteen speakers took to the stand during the Fargo School Board's public comment period on Tuesday, May 23, to voice both support and opposition regarding Superintendent Rupak Gandhi's recent comments regarding the district's stance on a new transgender law.

Gandhi during the May 9 school board meeting said he would make decisions regarding the safety of transgender students that may not be interpreted as being in accordance with state law.

The superintendent criticized state lawmakers by claiming they were putting politics over humanity, and that the new state laws may be in violation of federal law.

He also vowed that the district was going to do what's right for students “and when we see a conflict between federal law and state law, we're going to double down to advocate for our youth,” Gandhi said.

The legislation in question bars schools from adopting policies that require or prohibit “any individual from using a student's preferred gender pronoun.”


It also prohibits transgender K-12 students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity, though schools, with parental permission, may designate separate restroom accommodations for transgender students.

For now, the Fargo Public School District will continue to allow students to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity or a staff/single-stall restroom that is available for use, district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell told The Forum .

A woman with long, blond hair wears rainbow earrings and a shirt that reads "love out loud" while speaking into a microphone at a podium.
Kristin Nelson, founder of ProjectRAI, an advocacy organization that helps children, including those that are queer or transgender, speaks before the Fargo School Board on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Kristin Nelson, a mother from Fargo and founder of ProjectRAI, or Project Rainbows Are Inclusive, was one of the speakers Tuesday and thanked Gandhi for his stance and the Board of Education for their tacit agreement. ProjectRAI is an advocacy organization that helps children, including those who are queer or transgender.

Nelson encouraged nearly 20 people from the LGBTQ+ community to show support for Gandhi during the regularly scheduled board meeting. She hopes other school districts across the state will show the same support.

“I had a real good thought there would be a lot of people here to speak out against that," Nelson said. "We wanted the board to understand that there are people who get the reasoning and the importance of what they did. That is huge."

The more people who can be involved in kids' lives, the better, Nelson said. “If we are creating environments where teachers can’t talk to kids, where do they go next?"

Other speakers condemned Gandhi’s May 9 statement, claiming the school district would keep children’s secrets from parents.

Wendy White, a Fargo resident and mother, was mostly concerned that Gandhi's message about disobeying laws could mislead children.


“I don’t think we should be teaching deceit and disrespect of the law; it’s sending the wrong message to our kids. That part really bothers me,” White said.

A man dressed in dark colors speaks into a microphone at a podium in front of the seated Fargo School Board.
The May 23, 2023 Fargo School Board meeting brought in 18 speakers to address Superintendent Rupak Gandhi's statements about transgender issues in Fargo Public Schools.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Cassie Schmidt, a mother and a founder of Let Parents Decide That, agreed with White, saying of all the topics children need to be taught, “breaking state law is not really high up on my list as a mother."

“But what is more concerning than your efforts to break the law is that you are facilitating secret-keeping from parents,” Schmidt said.

Martin Avery, a pastor living in Fargo, disagreed with Schmidt and White, saying the U.S. has a long history of pushing back against laws the people consider unethical.

“Just because a law is a law doesn’t mean it’s a just law,” Avery said.

Another law that will take effect in August defined male and female in state law as being based on one’s sex at birth, which supporters say upholds biological truth. Opponents said the legislation effectively erases transgender people from data collection.

Another law bans amendments of sex designation on birth records “due to a gender identity change” with a few exceptions, such as a data entry error or if the “sex of the individual was changed with anatomically correct genitalia for the identified sex as certified by a medical provider.”

Karen Van Fossan, a Unitarian Universalist minister living in Fargo, spoke as a mother and a grandmother and said, “There are many laws in our history that were exceedingly unethical and immoral, and it took courage by bodies like this and communities like this to resist those laws for the sake of human beings.”


Lisa Esping, from Fargo, said it was the administration’s job to protect all students, citing school fights, attacks on teachers, cursing in hallways and other traumatic behavior that needs to be addressed.

Paul Mohror, a father whose child went to a Fargo elementary school, challenged the Fargo School Board, saying that in Gandhi's May 9 speech he discussed statistics stating that parents at times reject ideas their children come up with.

"However, you didn't talk about facilitating productive discussions with parents. You talked about hiding information from us. Why do you assume to know more about our kids than we do?" Mohror said. "You say you see a confliction between state and federal law. The way I see it and the way I heard it is you want to protect kids from their parents. We all love our kids, and we don’t want them to come to harm."

Jess English Teitelman, a member of the LGBTQ community who moved to Fargo, thanked the school board for its courage. She came close to tears when she described growing up in eastern Tennessee.

“I had to hide who I was from myself and from my peers. I was smothered and stifled, abused, neglected, beaten, starved," she said. "I had people make fun of me, adults who made fun of me."

Toward the end of her speech, she held up a sign that read: “Bigotry kills.”

“I hope that you will continue to be leaders, just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical,” Teitelman said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a direct quote to Lisa Esping. The quote was said by Paul Mohror.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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