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Columbus school cancels drag story time, citing security dispute

The Red Oak Community School's “Holi-Drag Storytime” event was to have been held Saturday morning at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Columbus school says an internal dispute over security prompted a last-minute cancellation of a weekend children's storytelling event featuring performers in drag amid a planned protest by a far-right group.

The Red Oak Community School's “Holi-Drag Storytime” event was to have been held Saturday morning at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, where the school is based. The Ohio Chapter of the Proud Boys last month announced plans to attend and protest the event.

School manager Cheryl Ryan said Saturday morning that the cancellation was prompted by an internal disagreement “about how this community could be best protected.” In an often-emotional speech from the decorated stage where the event was to have been held, she spoke of repeated efforts to secure police protection along with the discomfort with law enforcement felt by a “community defense team” that had volunteered to help provide security.

“In the end our performers felt unsafe without a police presence while our safety team felt unsafe with a police presence," Ryan said. “So it turns out our biggest problem wasn’t the Proud Boys after all.”

About 50 to 70 members of the Proud Boys and other groups had gathered on the sidewalk on roads leading to the church, shouting, chanting and holding signs. About two dozen people showed up in opposition to the protesters despite a coalition of central Ohio LGBTQ-plus organizations urging people not to show up as counterprotesters, citing the need to protect children, families and the community in a “potentially volatile and dangerous” situation.

The event was to feature three local drag performers reading stories to children of all ages" and performing a “few holiday numbers.” The school said last month that such events promote values such as love, kindness and inclusivity in children and prevent future bullying as well as helping to “normalize and celebrate the beautiful diversity of the gender spectrum that is now and has always been, a natural part of the human experience.”

Ryan thanked people around the country for their support, saying the school had “sold almost 1,000 tickets" for the $10 event and raised more than $5,000 for a local LGBTQ-plus charity.

A statement sent to 10TV from the Columbus Division of Police said:

"The Columbus Division of Police is aware of a statement made earlier today about our involvement in the Holi-Drag Storytime event. Unfortunately, what was said about our involvement is incorrect.

CPD learned about this event through Facebook and immediately reached out to the church and the school. A face-to-face meeting took place with all parties on November 18th to talk about the event and a safety plan. The school did request a special duty officer, but cancelled that request on the same day of the meeting.

During this week, CPD continued to communicate with the church, school, neighbors, and businesses in that area to inform them of our safety action plan. The school and church were consistently involved in those discussions through email and phone calls. CPD was told by the school that we could have plainclothes officers outside the event, but not inside the building for they had hired their own private security. CPD pulled together resources from several units to make sure we were present, including officers from our bike patrol and dialogue team. Even though the event was cancelled, we still had personnel and officers in the area to make sure all parties were safe.

The Columbus Division of Police protects all residents of the city equally. We have had several meetings with the LGBTQ community and continue to work together in partnership to make sure they feel supported and protected at all of their events."

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther also weighed in on the cancellation. His full statement is below:

"I stand fully with our LGBTQ+ neighbors, and I condemn any and all efforts to intimidate, harass, threaten or cause harm to any member of this community.

Earlier today, an extremist group known as the Proud Boys staged a demonstration outside of an event intended to be a family-friendly program. The Proud Boys is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, regularly espousing extremist, white-nationalist ideologies and beliefs that stand in stark contrast with who we are as a city. That is why we took this threat so seriously from the very beginning, and that is why we began developing a safety plan weeks ago.

When the City of Columbus was first made aware of the intent of these groups to have a presence at this event, the Columbus Division of Police immediately began working in close coordination with the organizer of the event, Red Oak Community School, the host of the event, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, and LGBTQ+ community leaders to ensure that a security plan was in place to allow the event to occur peacefully and without interruption.

These ongoing communications between the Division of Police and the event organizers began on Friday, November 18, and continued through today, when the event was intended to take place. As a result of these many conversations, a safety plan was developed that included coordination between the Columbus Division of Police and a private security firm that is owned, operated and staffed by LGBTQ+ community members. This safety plan was agreed upon and supported by the Central Ohio LGBTQ+ Leadership Roundtable which, in a statement issued on Wednesday, November 30, indicated that, “LGBTQ+ community leaders have been in conversation with Red Oak, local security professionals, local law enforcement, and Mayor Ginther and have confidence that they are taking this threat very seriously. They have a strong commitment to the children's and our community’s safety and we have confidence in their ability to address this situation.”

On Monday, November 28, I met with members of the Central Ohio LGBTQ+ Leadership Roundtable, which is made up of leaders who represent each of the organizations serving the Columbus-area LGBTQ+ community. Over the course of our conversation, Police Chief Elaine Bryant, Officer Shawn Lutz and Lt. Justin Coleman outlined the Police Division’s robust plans to respond to any potential threat to today’s event. During that discussion, our community’s LGBTQ+ leadership expressed support for and confidence in the safety plan that we had developed in coordination with the event organizers.

Yesterday, on Friday, December 2, the organizer of the event indicated that they no longer wished to partner with the private security firm and police tasked with protecting the event. As a result of this abrupt change, the event performers indicated that they no longer felt safe to participate in the event. Shortly thereafter, the event organizer announced the cancellation of the event. Despite the cancellation, Columbus Division of Police officers and personnel were onsite today to ensure safety at the site and throughout the surrounding neighborhood.

Our Division of Police, working in close coordination with the LGBTQ+ community, invested significant resources to ensure that this event could take place peacefully and without disruption. It is very unfortunate that the event was canceled, and we will continue to uplift and support the LGBTQ+ community moving forward."

Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin provided the written statement:

“We respect the parents, church, and organizers who worked to create a safe event at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus. It is upsetting to see a terrorist group bus in white supremacist bullies with assault rifles to intimidate families and children. Hate has no place in Columbus, and we certainly have too many guns in the streets already. I’ve personally spoken with the Mayor and top Division of Police leadership, starting more than a week ago. The City of Columbus has been engaged and prepared for this event, and remain on-site today to ensure the safety of all residents. Police leadership tell me they respected the expressed wishes of event organizers to not have officers inside the venue, but still be in the area and outside the church to maintain civility and order. There can always be better communications, and we must all continue speaking out against the Proud Boys for bringing their hate speech to Columbus.”

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