As culture wars escalate, California officials push back on school board policies

People show support for three statewide initiatives at a press conference at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

California’s culture wars escalated Monday as the state sued a school district over its transgender student policy, and a parents’ group took the first step toward placing a trio of initiatives on next year’s ballot that would restrict protections for transgender youth.

The moves follow highly publicized incidents last month in which state leaders attempted to rein in school boards they said had run afoul of civil rights laws. Under California’s local control system, school boards have wide latitude to enact their own policies — a freedom that’s now being tested as a handful of districts move to expand parental rights by limiting the rights of LGBTQ students.

Monday morning, Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a complaint against the Chino Valley Unified School District in San Bernardino County over its new policy requiring parental notification when students change their gender identity at school.

The complaint, filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court, seeks a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the policy, which Bonta referred to as the “forced outing” of transgender and gender nonconforming students, while the court determines whether it violates state law.

“It presents students with a terrible choice,” the attorney general said at a news conference in Los Angeles.

“Either walk back your rights to gender identity and gender expression, to be yourself, to be who you are, or face the risk of serious harm. Mental harm, emotional harm, physical harm.”

The policy requires schools to notify parents when students request to be identified by a name or pronoun, or use facilities or participate in a program that does not align with the sex on their official records. Parents would be notified even if they do not have the student’s permission.

Bonta said this could potentially put students with parents hostile to their gender expression in danger. He argued that the policy violates California’s constitutional right to privacy, as well as the state’s equal protection clause and state laws that guarantee students the equal right to an education regardless of their gender identity.

Citing comments from school board members who said transgender students were suffering from a mental illness and a perversion, Bonta said the policy was plainly discriminatory.

“In its function, in its text and in its context, this policy is destructive, it’s discriminatory and it is downright dangerous,” Bonta said. “It has no place in California, which is why we have moved in court to strike it down.”

Sonja Shaw, Chino Valley’s school board president, was undaunted by the lawsuit, and said the district’s policy is legally sound. 

“This is a desperate attempt to stop us, and quite honestly, it’s embarrassing that Bonta is wasting so much time and money on this,” Shaw said Monday. “Every time he does something like this, it’s a gift, because it exposes who these people really are — extremists who want to come between students and their parents.”

At a boisterous meeting July 20, the Chino Valley Unified board voted 4-1 to pass the policy requiring school staff to notify parents within three days of discovering that a child has changed their gender identity. That could include changing their name or pronouns, joining a single-sex team or club or using bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t align with their gender at birth.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond attended the meeting to protest the policy, but police escorted him out when he spoke longer than his allotted time.

Andi Johnston, Chino Valley Unified communications director, said that the district’s policy does actually include protections for students who might be at risk for abuse from parents. If a student believes they are in danger or may be abused, injured or neglected due to their parents knowing of their preferred gender identity, staff must notify police or child protective services and won’t immediately notify parents.

Assemblymember Bill Essayli, a Corona Republican, speaks during a press conference at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

Chino Valley Unified was among the state’s first districts to enact such a policy, which is based on a bill that’s currently stalled in the Legislature. Assembly Bill 1314, proposed by Assemblymember Bill Essayli, a Republican from Riverside, would have reversed the state’s current policy of protecting the privacy of LGBTQ students who might not be “out” at home. Because the chair of the Assembly education committee, Al Muratsuchi, declined to schedule the bill for a hearing, Essayli said he would contact school boards directly and urge them to pursue the issue.

Since then, three other districts — Anderson Union High School District in Shasta County, and Murrieta Valley Unified and Temecula Valley Unified  in Riverside County — have adopted similar policies. Several others have proposals in the works.

A few hours after Bonta filed his lawsuit, the group Protect Kids California filed state paperwork to place three initiatives on the fall 2024 ballot that would require schools to notify parents when students alter their gender identity; restrict girls’ locker rooms, bathrooms and sports teams to “biological” girls, based on the sex assigned them on their birth certificates; and ban surgery and hormone therapy for transgender minors.

“These initiatives are necessary because we have a Legislature that’s out of touch with most Californians, so we’re taking these issues directly to the voters,” said Jonathan Zachreson, a Roseville City School District board member and president of Students First California, which is backing the initiatives.

The group has until April to gather close to 550,000 signatures per initiative to qualify for the ballot.

At a press conference Monday afternoon on the steps of the Capitol, backers of the initiatives said they were eager to return rights to parents, who they say are best suited to help their children.

“What we are concerned with is who gets to raise our kids, who gets to raise the next generation of students in the state of California,” Essayli said. “Is it the government or is it their parents?”

At the end of the event, a group of young activists confronted one of the speakers but was then surrounded by backers of the initiatives. The activists wanted to know why adults were speaking on behalf of youth who’d be affected by the policies.

LGBTQ groups said both efforts — the proposed initiatives and the school board actions — are deeply harmful to LGBTQ students, and the state is right to intervene. The 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that 10% of transgender people had faced violence from a family member due to their gender identity, and 15% had run away or been forced from their homes. In general, LGBTQ youth are more prone to depression and anxiety and are four times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers, according to the Trevor Project, which advocates for LGBTQ youth.

“These anti-LGBTQ policies are spreading like wildfire, and people need to realize the harmful impact that these policies have on young people,” said Jorge Reyes Salinas, communications director for Equality California, a civil rights organization focusing on LGBTQ issues.

“It’s imperative that the state take action. … We’re grateful that Bonta filed this suit to uphold the rights and dignity of LGBTQ students.”

He said he’s confident the ballot initiatives will fail, saying that most Californians oppose “hate and discrimination, especially when it comes to LGBTQ students. But we are ready to continue fighting, and we’re not going to stop until we’re victorious.”

Meanwhile, members of the California Legislative LGBT Caucus, with help from Gov. Gavin Newsom, said they were continuing to craft a bill strengthening the rights of transgender students. 

“Recognizing the nuance and complexity of this work, we are continuing to refine our legislative approach in this two-year session, including working with the governor and key stakeholders, to ensure the most comprehensive and responsible legislation is proposed,” said Assemblymember Chris Ward, a Democrat from San Diego. “Our LGBTQ Caucus is fully committed to assuring that every student feels safe and supported in their school environment and that teachers aren’t forced into policing and outing students. We know that lives and careers are at stake here.”

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