Sacramento-area community grapples with rise of school districts’ gender notification policies | #schoolsaftey

Packed to the brim, the Patti Baker Theater at Roseville High School buzzed with activity on the last Thursday of September for a Roseville Joint Unified High School District meeting. 

There was no policy on the docket. The singular discussion item on the agenda was broad: “Parent Rights – No Formal Action.” 

But speaker after speaker made the discussion specific. Comments overwhelmingly focused on gender notification — also called “forced outing” policies — which mandate teachers and school staff to tell parents if students are using a different name, pronouns and/or gender than the ones listed on official record. 

LGBTQ+ students and allies called out those policies’ potential to result in harm if a student is outed before they’re ready to their parents. Some parents defended their right to know about their children’s identity, while others asked the board not to make policy changes. 

“There’s no need for you to inject yourself into this fight,” Roseville attorney and district parent Kevin Calia said during public comment. “There might be twists and turns every few weeks. We don’t need to waste our money and our staff’s time trying to adjust to every development.”

No definitive policy was announced at the meeting’s close — board members will consult with the superintendent given the responses from community members. 

That heated conversation over such policies has played out at several board meetings in the Sacramento area over recent weeks: Elk Grove Unified School District, where students across the county organized an action on Sept. 19 to show strong disapproval of potential policies; Rocklin Unified School District and Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District, both of which passed a gender notification policy in early September; and Buckeye Union School District in El Dorado Hills saw a presentation on the policy around the same time.

Gender notification policies, under the auspices of fostering greater openness with family, are a major way parents’ rights activists are making inroads in policy. 

The presentation given at the Buckeye Union School District reflects one presented to several other Southern California school districts over the summer. 

And statewide, the group Protect California Kids is seeking to introduce three ballot measures, including one to institute a statewide gender notification policy, similar to legislation introduced and shut down by Republican Assembly member Bill Essayli earlier this year. The other two ballot measures are intended to limit trans minors’ access to sports and to gender-affirming care. 

While regionally, the policies are seeing some traction, they have been strongly opposed by several lawmakers. And queer and trans students, parents and advocates are pushing back, saying such policies endanger students by taking away their agency and potentially putting them in an unsafe situation should their parents be homophobic, transphobic or unreceptive to learning more about their kids’ identity. 

“Every policy mobilization, every organized action, and every demand for inclusion to prioritize queer and BIPOC voices comes from a profound part of ourselves that simply wants everyone to be okay,” said Celine Qin, a youth organizer and student at Elk Grove Unified School District.

Timeline of gender notification policies in Sacramento

While discussions about gender in schools aren’t new, policies that deal specifically with notifying parents when a student’s identity — including their gender — changes are a relatively new phenomenon. There isn’t precedent for Assembly member Essayli’s failed legislation, introduced in March, which would’ve instituted a statewide gender notification policy across schools if passed.

And in discussing the policies passed in Southern California school districts, legal experts told the L.A. Times the issue will likely be settled in the courts.

“The law on this is unclear, because it is a new issue,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. “The students being minors does make the legal questions more difficult, but even as minors they have privacy rights.”

Bonta has already issued a lawsuit against the Chino Valley Unified School District policy passed in July, when the policies first became widely discussed in Southern California schools. 

“The forced outing policy wrongfully endangers the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of non-conforming students who lack an accepting environment in the classroom and at home,” he said in a statement. “Our message to Chino Valley Unified and all school districts in California is loud and clear: We will never stop fighting for the civil rights of LGBTQ+ students.”

In Sacramento, discussion of gender notification policies has largely happened over the past two months. 

The two school districts that passed such policies in September — Rocklin Unified School District and Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District — are in similar, though distinct, positions. 

RUSD spokesperson Sundeep Dosanjh told CapRadio after the Sep. 7 vote that “the Rocklin Unified School District is currently formalizing implementation and training plans regarding the revision.”

But since then, the district has received a swift unfair labor practice charge from the Rocklin Teachers Professional Association, or RPTA. The charge is premised on the district violating the Educational Employment Relations Act, since the union’s members couldn’t bargain over the policy’s effects before the board voted 4-1 to approve it.  

“If the district management is serious about wanting to bargain in good faith, it will follow the same process as required by state law and immediately rescind the policy so we can negotiate,” RTPA President Travis Mougeotte said in a statement to the Sacramento Bee

RTPA is also calling for the state’s Public Employee Relations Board to order the district rescind its gender notification policy.

The union asked the board to bargain over the policy twice — on Sept. 4 and Sept. 5 — before the policy was passed in the early hours of Sept. 7. 

In southern California, Chino Valley Unified School District’s teachers’ union, Associated Chino Teachers, similarly filed unfair labor practice charges against the district once their policy was passed

Meanwhile, Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District’s Board of Trustees, which unanimously voted to update its parental notification policy to include notification about gender on Sept. 15, said its policy update was developed with legal council and that it has been following the CVUSD lawsuit.

In a statement, the board added that the update “simply codifies” the board’s high priority on working with families to support students. 

“Students are most successful when a strong partnership, with open communication, exists between our educators, students and their families,” the board said. “We would never ask our staff to break the law or take any action that would put their credential at risk.”

The policy hasn’t yet been implemented, with the board saying that district administration is still working with staff to develop administrative regulation. No specific timeline was given.  

At RJUHSD, where the fate of a gender notification policy is far from set in stone, board president Pete Constant said he believes the district should “state clearly and unambiguously that we will operate all aspects of our organization and school sites in a manner that respects the rights of both students and parents.”

“If issues cannot be resolved through the interactive process, then we should respect the supremacy of parental rights as clearly guided by multiple Supreme Court precedences,” he said at the Sept. 28 board meeting. “However, in any situation in which a student’s safety can be articulated to be at risk, we should follow established protocols to first and foremost ensure the student’s safety.

Students push back

Students who have spoken at board meetings on the policy have largely been against it for a number of reasons. Chief among them: Their right to privacy and ability to share information on their own terms and the risk it could pose to their mental and physical health if coming out would be unsafe. 

California’s Attorney General Rob Bonta has strongly opposed gender notification policies on the grounds of their violating students’ right to privacy under the state’s Equal Protection clause, Education and Government Code and constitutional right to privacy. 

Qin, the Elk Grove Unified School District student, organized the action at the district’s Sept. 19 board meeting through The Reclamation Project @ 916, a countywide, youth-run grassroots group mobilizing around youth policy.

She said queer and trans students aren’t looking to “permanently alienate parents from understanding our youth experience.” 

“What matters is not distorting ‘parents’ rights’ to justify a violation of privacy, but to understand that a queer individual does not owe information to the world that could put them in danger, and that a parent’s right for involvement should aim solely to prevent, not perpetuate this danger,” she said. 

Safety can be tenuous for LGBTQ+ youth and adults, but youth face more precarity when their housing and finances are directly dependent on their family. 

According to a recent National Institutes of Health study, 73% of trans adolescents have experienced psychological abuse, while 39% have faced physical abuse, often from parents.

And identity-based family rejection and conflicts at home are two of the main reasons LGBTQ+ youth become homeless, according to a 2021 research report from The Trevor Project on LGBTQ+ youth homelessness. 

Of LBGTQ+ youth surveyed in that report who were kicked out of their family homes, 40% of them were kicked out as a result of their identity. 

At the recent Roseville board meeting, all the students who spoke during public comment were against the policy. And both the student board representatives present expressed doubt and questions about possible impacts on student safety, particularly after one board member suggested giving parents the opportunity to opt in or out of new notifications, including ones about student identity. 

“To the parents that — their children may not feel comfortable with sharing gender … those may be the parents that will not want to opt out,” said student board representative George Buljan. “That’s the main thing I’m worried about. If a parent doesn’t opt out and their student is worried about their parent, and knows that they didn’t opt out, what happens with that?” 

Centering students in crafting policy — whether on gender notification or another topic — is crucial, Qin said. 

“Authority cannot simply claim to speak with us in mind,” she added. “Our voices should be a priority, for officials to hear us authentically and to know our power, our passion and our stakes on the chopping block often suppressed under a wave of parental fear.”

Broader community response

While many parents have been outspoken at board meetings in favor of gender notification policies, there has also been community pushback from other parents, teachers and LGBTQ+ organizations. 

The Sacramento LGBT Center issued a statement after RUSD passed its policy that said it “paints a target on the back of transgender and nonbinary youth by requiring schools to out them to parents without knowing whether the child’s home will be safe.”

“At the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, we want youth in our community to know that if their school or home aren’t safe, the Center will always provide a safe haven,” the center added. 

It also includes housing resources for LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness.

And this past weekend, parent Merideth Cooper — who only uses part of her last name to protect her son’s privacy — helped organize a town hall at A Seat at the Table Books in Elk Grove for anyone “committed to standing up for trans youth.” Attendees coordinated their actions and learned more about what the situation looks like at different districts. 

Across mediums, over 200 people attended the town hall — 25 people were there in person, while 200 viewed the livestream on TikTok and 8 watched along on Facebook. 

Cooper said she was motivated to organize the event, which took place on the last day of Banned Books Week, to explicitly make the connection that “the same people who are trying to ban the books are doing [are the same people who] to try to force teachers and staff to out students.” 

“I should want to send my child to public school and to know that when I send him, that he feels safe and supported, and I want his friends to feel safe and supported, and whether or not they are trans or gender non-conforming,” she said. “They’re public schools for a reason, because they’re for everybody.”

She called the situation “everybody’s fight,” whether they make copies of a flier, organize an action, compile contact lists or undertake other actions big or small. 

Cooper, who is also an organizer with the National Mobilization for Reproductive Justice, put the debated school policies into the context of a broader landscape of rising anti-trans legislation across the country — this year, close to 600 anti-trans bills have been introduced. 

“It’s the far-right that is putting forth, and then in some cases, passing these forced outing policies,” Cooper said. “They didn’t stop at trans adults, they didn’t stop at birth control, the right to reproductive care, they didn’t stop at gender-affirming care, they’re not going to stop at trans kids. They’re just not going to stop there. And so it may not seem right in this moment that this is something that affects you, [but] eventually it is going to.”

Qin also wants youth in particular to know that change on these policies won’t necessarily come at the ballot box, and actions like presenting at public comment are crucial to moving the needle: “Where in history has politics represented only through the ballot secured the needs of a society’s most marginalized? Better asked, what does the ballot fail to reveal?”

“Throughout history we have seen numerous examples of organized movement securing a right to political participation,” she said. “It is my hope that our community maintains the same energy upon realizing that demonstration, mass mobilization, and direct action are some of the only ways young people can participate in this discussion.”

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