California Republicans target school boards over gender identity policies

By | October 31, 2023

Bill Essayli had no chance of getting one of his first bills passed by the California State Assembly.

Mr. Essayli, a new Republican lawmaker, wanted parents to be informed if their child asked to change their gender identity at school. His bill attracted attention, but died without a hearing in a state legislature led by a Democratic supermajority.

So Mr. Essayli and his conservative allies tried another solution: local school boards.

In July, the board overseeing the Chino Valley Unified School District, which serves a diverse, middle-class area about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, adopted a version of Mr. Essayli’s proposal. At least six other districts across the state have followed suit.

“We kind of changed course and said, ‘Well, they won’t let us hear it in Sacramento, but we think it’s good policy,'” said Mr. Essayli, who represents a region of the Inland Empire near Chino. . “And so we’re going to move forward with a school district policy.”

Republicans have almost no power in California state government or its largest cities, but they have found traction in a handful of suburbs where parents’ frustrations have spilled over since the pandemic.

At several school board meetings across the state, the same debate has played out over the past few months. Some parents insist that they have the right to know everything about their child’s school experience, from the materials studied to the toilets used. They were joined by political activists and, in many cases, Mr. Essayli.

Other parents have strongly objected, arguing that the real motivation behind the policy is to instill fear in transgender children and prevent them from coming out at school or at home. Some said the notification policy would amount to a forced out that could endanger children whose parents reject their LGBTQ identities.

“We think our school boards should focus on the things that matter to all students and public education,” said Kristi Hirst, a Chino Valley parent who is an organizer in a growing countermovement. “Our schools are going off the rails right now. »

In July, the Chino Valley Unified meeting, where the school board approved the parental notification policy, was a raucous event; each camp had hundreds of people. The 27,000-student school district has been a political battleground for years. Change of majority on the board of directors between conservatives with close ties to a local megachurch and moderate and secular representatives. Chino Valley Unified was previously engaged in a years-long legal dispute on the use of prayer and Bible readings at board meetings.

Last year, conservatives took control when Sonja Shaw, an outspoken activist Republican who works as personal fitness instructor who leads a local Bible study group, was elected along with another right-wing candidate.

Ms. Shaw led the parental notification policy and led the board meeting as chair. This debate was pivotal enough that Tony Thurmond, the public schools superintendent and Democrat who recently announced he was running for governor, made a rare appearance.

As he made his point, saying LGBTQ children were in danger, his microphone was cut off. Ms Shaw reprimanded Mr Thurmond for trying to speak beyond his allotted minute.

“I really appreciate your presence here, but here’s the problem,” she said, raising her voice. “You are in Sacramento and propose things that pervert children! »

Mr Thurmond was unable to respond before being escorted out by a scrum of security officers. Ms. Shaw reminded him that he was in Chino, not the State Capitol in Sacramento.

State legislators like Florida and Texas have invoked parents’ rights in enacting reading bans, as well as dozens of laws restricting which school bathrooms transgender students can use and whether LGBTQ history can be discussed in classrooms.

But Democratic-led states have rebuffed those efforts. Instead, California lawmakers this year passed a series of measures intended to protect LGBTQ residents, including guaranteed bathroom access for all genders on school campuses.

For Ms. Hirst, the fight over the notification policy has unnecessarily dragged the Chino Valley district into another culture war. Ms. Hirst has been involved with Chino Valley Schools since childhood, serving as a student, educator and now mother of three children in the district.

She helped found Our Schools USA, which attempted to counter the conservative movement at the school board level. The group’s co-founder is Christina Gagnier, who served as president of the Chino Valley Unified School Board until she was ousted by Mrs Shaw.

Ms. Hirst said the district should instead focus on attracting qualified teachers amid a shortage and ensuring students have access to the courses they need to get into college. It’s a job that, when done well, should be “boring,” she says.

“These culture war candidates are particularly focused on tunnel vision,” Ms. Hirst said. “Their only concern is their political and religious issues. »

Rob Bonta, state attorney general and potential Democratic candidate for governor, for follow-up the Chino Valley School District over its notification policy in August, arguing the district discriminated against LGBTQ students and violated their rights to privacy.

The Republicans seemed to rise to the challenge. They see legal disputes as an opportunity to make their case before judges they believe are more sympathetic than California lawmakers, particularly judges at the federal level.

“We would like the case to go to the Supreme Court,” Mr. Essayli said. “It’s a fight we want.”

Before a judge sided with Mr. Bonta and temporarily blocked the policy, the Chino Valley district had informed 15 families that their children had requested a different gender identity at school, Ms. Shaw said.

This month, another San Bernardino Superior Court judge again temporarily blocked two of the policy’s provisions that required the district to notify parents if their child requested to be identified by a gender that did not match that child’s gender. appearing on his birth certificate. But it allowed the district to notify parents if children request to change their school records.

The current legal dispute is not the test case conservatives might have hoped for, because it is a matter of state law, not federal law. But one of California’s notification policies could eventually be challenged in a federal court, said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and dean of the University of California, Berkeley, law school.

Mr. Chemerinsky said the Supreme Court had already compromised on the fundamental tension at play, between a minor’s constitutional right to privacy and the parents’ constitutional right to decide how to raise their child. But, he said, asking to be treated as a different gender does not directly imply physical safety, while sharing this information without the child’s consent could put the child in danger.

“There is no question that this is a conservative court,” Mr. Chemerinsky said. “On the other hand, I think legally speaking, a child’s right to privacy seems to be much more compelling than a parent’s right to know.”

Some conservative school boards face local resistance. In Orange County, voters are likely to qualify a recall election of two Orange Unified School District administrators after their board removed the superintendent without warning, banned the pride flag and adopted a parental notification requirement, among other actions.

At Capistrano Unified School District, which has more than 49,000 students and is the largest district in Orange County, administrators this month considered a broader parental notification policy.

Hundreds of people showed up, and the crowd divided sharply: parents, community members and roving right-wing activists dressed in white, holding signs on a balmy evening reading: “Parents are not the enemies.” In purple, district students, alumni, parents and educators waved Pride flags. One student wore a T-shirt that said, “Jesus wore a dress.”

Dozens of students, many of them transgender, lined up to speak.

“I’m a senior in high school; I should be worried about keeping up my grades and submitting my college applications on time, but I’m not,” said Nox Lane, 17, a high school student in the district, who described her gender identity as non-binary. “In fact, it all seems like a small thing when I see my community and my identity under attack. »

Mr. Essayli also appeared at the meeting nearly 50 miles from his district, where he argued that parents should know and control everything about how their children are educated. “I think it’s totally disrespectful that you took a whole hour to listen to the kids,” he added.

At the end of the evening, the board voted 5-2 to reject the policy.

Sergio Olmos contributed reporting from Chino, California.

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