board member

Soon after Fairfax County the school board passed a resolution at its regular meeting last week for “inclusive” learning, board chair Rachna Sizemore-Heizer struggled with a parliamentary question when school board member Karen Keys-Gamarra blurted out, “We cannot be this retarded,” resorting to a pejorative that children are now reprimanded for using on the playground and, one week later, sparking local parents to call for her resignation. 

Watching a videorecording of the moment at home the next morning, special education advocate and Fairfax County mother Debra Tisler felt a deep hurt – and anger. 

The five words – and the use especially of the “R” word, as it is now known – was emblematic of years of lawsuits, railroading and bureaucracy that local parents have faced trying to get school board members and school district officials to extend rights to children with special education needs. 

At home, Tisler immediately started drafting a petition, calling for Keys-Gamarra’s resignation, not only as a board member but also as guardian ad litem, an important judge-appointed state position in which Keys-Gamarra represents the welfare of children in state custody, often over issues of abuse. She noted that on Oct. 5, 2010, former President Barack Obama signed “Rosa’s Law,” removing the word “retarded” from all federal regulations and agencies and requiring states to remove the use of the word “retarded” from their laws and government business. 

In the petition, Tisler wrote: “The parents and children of Fairfax County Public Schools can’t move forward with reconciliation and healing with Karen Keys-Gamarra, who has built and sustained walls of discrimination, cultural insensitivity and violation of Rosa’s Law.” The petition can be read at this link:

The full video shows how the school board had just abruptly interrupted a speaker, Ilisa St. Pierre, who was raising concerns about anti-semitism on behalf of a local organization, United Against Antisemitism. She had brought a power-of-attorney document to speak on behalf of a local parent who had had a medical emergency and was just wrapping up her two-minute speech when a school board member interrupted her to ask her name and question whether she was violating a rule created by this board over the last two years that doesn’t allow speaker substitutions. 

Mother Rebecca Schgallis, cofounder of United Against Antisemitism and a former FCPS teacher, watched the episode play out in horror. 

“Parents are rightfully upset over the hypocrisy of a school board that just that evening lectured them on antiracism and inclusivity and then minutes later a board member used a slur that is hurtful to people with disabilities,” said Schgallis. “What is also frustrating and has been completely lost in the coverage of this incident is that the board was more concerned about their rules and interrupted a speaker who was there to address the ongoing issues of antisemitism in Fairfax schools and the school district essentially ignoring it for years.” 

Parents of special-ed children say they feel a similar frustration over years of absentee leadership by school board members and school district officials. 

Indeed, for hours, as the hot-mic moment circulated in the community, none of the board members stepped forward to admit it was them. Finally, at 2:27 p.m., the day after the meeting, Keys-Gamarra admitted she was the one who made the statement.

In an initial statement released to the press, she said, “I thought the board should allow a parent to finish her point and was frustrated with the outcome.” After receiving criticism for her explanation, her statement on her website deleted reference to saying the slur after being “frustrated.”

“We certainly are disappointed by Ms. Keys-Gamarra’s remark and see this as an opportunity to remind her and others about our mission to build more inclusive communities; communities where everyone is valued and respected.” said Holly Claytor , vice president of communications and development for Special Olympics Virginia, which provides support and opportunities for athletes with intellectual disabilities. “We encourage Ms. Keys-Gamarra to join us at an upcoming Unified Champion Schools event in Fairfax where we teach, through sports, how we can all be positive agents of change.”

The school board responded to the backlash by saying it would be having internal meetings over the issue. But parents and community members are demanding public accountability and transparency and another “R” word – a resignation.


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