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Parents battle gender secrecy in California schools

State sues district to block parental notification policy

Nicolette Yonchelle celebrates with other parents rights supporters after the Chino Valley Unified School District voted. Getty Images/Photo by Will Lester/MediaNews Group/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Parents battle gender secrecy in California schools

Before COVID-19 precautions temporarily shuttered schools, Sonja Shaw never paid attention to politics. The wife and mother of two children in Southern California’s Chino Valley Unified School District said that, before the shutdown, she didn’t even know what a school board was, let alone that elected officials on the board made decisions for her children. She was a busy soccer mom who owned a business and led a Bible study.

But then Shaw began researching school boards and discovered that many promoted gender ideology that she thought pulled children away from their parents. She wasn’t the only one. Shaw and other parents organized a grassroots coalition and started attending school board meetings. She later became president of the group.

“I was just trying to lead a bunch of parents to make sure we had a voice at the table,” said Shaw, who said she had no thought of running for an elected position. God had other plans, she said. Last November, she and another concerned parent won two seats on the Chino Valley school board.

Within months, the board began working on a new K-12 policy that would require schools to notify parents if their child wants to identify as a different gender. The district consulted parents and its attorney before presenting the policy proposal to the public.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued the Chino Valley Unified School District in state court on Aug. 28 to block the new district policy. Claiming the policy violates state law, Bonta alleges that students have a right to privacy under the state constitution to choose whether to inform parents of their wish to identify as a different gender at school. The state also accuses the district of discriminating against transgender students by subjecting them to the threat of being unwillingly “outed” to their parents. The suit claims students who identify as transgender are “in danger of imminent, irreparable harm from the consequences of forced disclosures.”

The school board voted 4-1 to adopt the parental notification policy at a July 20 meeting attended by hundreds of parents, teachers, local leaders, and students, following several hours of heated public debate.

At the start of the July 20 debate, the district’s lawyer, Anthony De Marco, explained the policy. The California Department of Education published guidance, he said, that parents do not have the right to be notified if their children choose to participate in activities based on perceived gender identity rather than their biological sex. But the department’s guidance is not law, De Marco said.

More than 80 individuals spoke either for or against the policy. Some members of the audience held American flags. Others held pride flags. Most people sat quietly while someone spoke at the podium, but after speakers finished their remarks, audience members often waved signs and cheered, whistled, or clapped. As board president, Shaw ordered people who shouted or interrupted a speaker to leave, and if they refused, security officers escorted them outside.

Opponents of the policy warned it was dangerous. “Nearly half of students who identify as being LGBTQ+ are considering suicide,” state Superintendent Tony Thurmond said at the meeting. One student, Max Ibarra, accused the board of having blood on its hands.

But dozens of parents and local leaders spoke in support of the policy, often invoking their Christian faith. One mother, Misty Startup, said the schools are telling children that they can trust teachers and friends more than their parents and family. “What we are against is anyone trying to step in and take away our role as parents, anyone who is lying to our kids, saying they love our kids more than we do,” she said.

Nick Wilson said that it was morally repugnant that anyone would insinuate that educators should keep him and other parents out of their children’s lives.

Jessica Tapia, a former teacher in a nearby school district, described how her employer told her in 2022 to withhold information about students’ gender identity from parents. “Are you asking me to lie to parents?” she said she asked the school. “And they said yes, for student safety and privacy.”

After she informed the school that she would not lie to parents, students, or herself, it fired her. Tapia filed a lawsuit against that school district in May.

Parents in two other California school districts recently filed lawsuits alleging that educators took advantage of the state’s assertion that children have a right to privacy from their parents. According to the lawsuits, educators encouraged the challengers’ daughters, both 11 years old at the time, to identify as boys but instructed them not to tell their parents.

A federal district judge dismissed the first case on July 11, ruling that it addressed a political issue and that there is no constitutional law requiring parents to be notified of a minor’s gender identity change. The second case was settled, with the district reportedly paying $100,000 to the parent. Dozens of similar lawsuits have been filed across the country.

Shaw said she began receiving death threats after the Chino school board approved the parental notification policy. “I was scared,” she said. But she sees her work as a spiritual battle and said she relies on prayer and reading the Bible to calm her fears: “The Bible tells us this is what’s going to happen when we stand in truth.”

The Chino school district has not responded to Bonta’s lawsuit. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.

Adele Fulton

Adele is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, Vermont Law School, and Westmont College. She is an attorney in New Hampshire and lives in New England with her husband.


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