As a mother of two children in Houston ISD schools, I have a stake in the future of our school district and have been following the moves of its Board of Education for several years. I have attended almost every school board meeting for the last few years—including regular meetings, board workshops and agenda review meetings. I am familiar with the players, the politics and the issues with which the school board is dealing.
However, this past week’s events shocked even me, a veteran observer of the board’s happenings.
In March, Richard Carranza resigned as HISD Superintendent, and in April, the board promoted then Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Grenita Lathan, to interim superintendent while they planned for their second superintendent search in the same number of years.
But for the past five months, there has been a behind the scenes struggle by a faction of board members to make Interim Superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan the permanent superintendent. The board is split, and currently, Dr. Lathan does not have the five votes necessary to be selected despite strong lobbying by some board members, powerful elected officials and influential business people.
As part of her bid to secure the top job, Dr. Lathan has welcomed a longtime activist and critic of the district’s administration, Gerry Monroe, into her circle.
She regularly appears in pictures with him on social media, and his numerous Facebook videos often provide information that could only come from Dr. Lathan’s office—leading followers to believe they are in constant contact. Mr. Monroe is a longtime outspoken critic of the board, and at times, I’ve even stood on the same side of important issues—as we did this past spring when Dr. Lathan and the board wanted to charter ten historic HISD schools.
But while Mr. Monroe is a regular fixture at board meetings demanding changes in our schools, he has also made arguments expressing homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic sentiments. For instance, he made a video during the debate on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) where he mocked people who are transgender by entering a woman’s restroom. On another occasion, he made demeaning comments about one of his former partners during his public comments at a school board meeting. More recently, Mr. Monroe has chastised women for speaking poorly of R. Kelly, a sexual abuser, and blamed the sexual assault of females on the way they dress.
Dr. Lathan’s supportive faction of trustees have been waging a significant campaign to convince the rest of the board to act without a full superintendent search. Principals from these trustees’ districts have been using public comment space and time at board meetings to urge the board to hire her. Publicized events in schools and churches with supporters like Mr. Monroe have become frequent. Mr. Monroe was even permitted to film a music video at Yates High School, his alma mater, celebrating the rebuilt school’s new address.
But during the past few weeks however, as a majority of the board has been moving closer to kicking off a new national superintendent search, Mr. Monroe’s rhetoric and coordination with some trustees has escalated.
He began to make social media posts where he discussed trustees’ personal lives, encouraged people to show up at trustees’ homes, and critiqued Trustee Anne Sung and Trustee Holly Vilaseca’s bodies.
Things on his Facebook page seemed to reach a fever pitch this past week, when he made a video insinuating that Trustee Sung’s sexual partner needed to be drunk in order to have sex with her—a video now removed by Facebook for objectionable content and a video which caused one of Mr. Monroe’s Facebook accounts to be banned for 30 days.
Until last week, this sexual harassment of trustees had been relegated solely to Mr. Monroe’s Facebook page, where anyone could choose to ignore it.
But then, Trustee Jolanda Jones, angry that the board has failed to appoint Dr. Lathan as permanent superintendent, appointed Mr. Monroe to the board’s committee on Special Education—a committee which Trustee Sung chairs and on which Trustee Vilaseca serves. Trustee Jones made this appointment—over a year after the committee began meeting and just weeks prior to the committee completing its final report—in a blatant attempt to intimidate and harass Trustee Sung.
Mr. Monroe’s online sexual harassment of trustees became a weapon that Trustee Jones could use against her fellow trustees as Trustee Sung and others were forced to sit in a room with Mr. Monroe just a few days after the worst of these incidents.
Trustee Sung reached out to Dr. Lathan to discuss whether Mr. Monroe’s placement on the committee was valid and discuss her concerns about her safety. Dr. Lathan turned a blind eye and said there was nothing to be done.
In summary, as a woman and mother, I am gravely concerned with this turn of events, and I think all women should be. Of course elected officials should have a thick skin in order to do their job and certainly loud opposition which might seem personal is part of that job.
However, women have the right to conduct their business in a harassment-free environment, and Mr. Monroe’s comments clearly crossed the line into sexual harassment. Houston ISD has policies around bullying and sexual discrimination, and we would never ask a student or teacher to sit in a room with their abuser and continue to work with them.
This board and administration failed to protect not only Trustee Sung and Trustee Vilaseca, but all women. In the world of #MeToo, and on a board that is dominated by women (8-1), how did this happen?
If this board of trustees cannot keep sexual harassment out of its business and its boardroom, how can we trust them to keep our daughters and our sons safe in their schools?