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When Stephanie Camacho-Van Dyke, the Director of Advocacy and Education at the LGBTQ Center of Orange County in California, arrived at her local school board meeting on Sept. 7, she was number 79 on the list of attendees.
Guests had been rolling in for the 7 p.m. event since noon that day to comment on a rule that would require school staff to inform parents if their child asked to be identified by a different name or pronouns. School district board members listened to parents and teachers, among others, testify for seven hours before deciding to pass the resolution, making Orange Unified School Board the sixth school board in California to pass a rule of this sort.
Such policies are becoming increasingly common across the country. At least five states—including Alabama, North Carolina, and Indiana— have a state law that forces the outing of trangender youth, according to independent, nonprofit think tank Movement Advancement Project. Another six states have laws that better protect parent’s access to all records of their child, including sessions with their counselor or psychologist, but do not explicitly require parental notification of a child’s transgender status.
And just thirty minutes away from Orange County, the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Education is currently facing a temporary restraining order to stop the enforcement of their own gender identity disclosure policy, which requires staff to notify parents if their child asks to be identified or treated as a gender different than the one listed on their official records.
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Many in favor of the policy are part of the parental rights movement, who argue that they should have full knowledge of their children’s behaviors and practices at school. But as debates over kid’s privacy and school curriculum emerge, LGBTQ+ advocates warn that the measure could be detrimental to transgender students.
“Parents of course understandably want to know what's going on with their child,” says Cameron Van Fossen, executive director of Gender Spectrum, an organization dedicated to the well-being of gender-expansive children. “But the most important point here is that school districts should be looking to adopt policies that prioritize the safety and well being of all students, including transgender students, while respecting their rights and autonomy.”
What’s at risk
Experts warn that policies outing transgender children could pose dangerous effects on the well-being of youth. Less than 40% of queer youth say that their homes are LGBTQ-affirming, according to a Trevor Project survey, meaning their family members or guardians would not be accepting of either their sexuality or gender identity. Van Fossen notes that an unsupportive home can cause children to face harassment, or even homelessness. Queer youth experience homelessness at a rate 120% higher than their straight or cisgender peers.
Camacho Van-Dyke, who works with LGBTQ+ youth in Orange County to provide mental health support and education, says the students she is in contact with have expressed “disbelief” and “anger” at the school board’s rule.
“When a school does this, do they have an idea like who they're potentially outing a student to?” Camacho Van-Dyke said. “There is probably a reason why that youth has not come out to their parent at that time. It should be up to that young person to decide when they want to and when they're ready to do so.”
The policy would disrupt the lives of a community that is already vulnerable. More than 80% of transgender individuals have considered suicide, and another 40% have attempted suicide.
During the school district meeting, however, one board member, Mari Burke, advocated for the passing of the rule, saying “children do not have the right to privacy from their parents.” Others said they fear that schools are indoctrinating children with confusing ideas about gender identity, and encouraging youth to trust their teachers more than their parents. “Leave our kids alone,” was the resounding term seen across t-shirts and heard among testimonies in favor of the policy.
Psychologists have raised concerns about the declining mental health of transgender adults, and particularly, children, as numerous bills limiting transgender folks' right to use the bathroom of their choosing, access gender-affirming care, and updating gender markers on their birth certificates or other driver’s licenses have been passed over the past two years.
Residents such as Melanie Pollak, a long-time Orange County resident with two children that have gone through the public school system, is against the policy and feels that the rule is a distraction from what the school board should really be focused on. The policy makes her feel like her children’s education is being politicized. “It does feel like the board majority just doesn't care about our kids' education. They have an agenda and they want to pursue that instead of focusing on making our schools the best they can.”
Ongoing legal battles
As Orange County residents debate their stance over the policy, the legality of this type of measure is still under question. California Attorney General Rob Bonta sued Chino Valley Unified School District for a similar policy in late August, which Bonta argued violated the state’s equal protection clause, constitutional right to privacy, and anti-discrimination protection in the education code.
“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. 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,” Bonta said in an August press release. The policy is now on pause, unable to be enforced because of a temporary restraining order against the district. Since then, Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District Board in the suburban areas of Roseville and Antelope in Northern California has also passed a similar rule.
During the Sept. 7 meeting, a member of the Orange Unified School District Board of Education revealed that Bonta had sent an email warning to the Orange Unified School District , saying that he would take legal action if necessary, but has not yet acted. At the meeting, the school board also disclosed that they made last-minute changes to the parental notification policy if their child asked to be identified by a different name or pronoun.
The revised rule would require staff members to refer students to a school counselor or psychologist first. Afterward, the counselor or psychologist would inform the school principal, who then has five days to contact a parent or guardian unless the student is 12 years of age or older and does not want their parent/guardian to know. There is also an exception if the school psychologist, counselor, and/or principal believes the student’s safety could be at risk. However, school staff would have to justify in writing why they did not inform the child's parent.
Chino Valley is not the only district that is undergoing legal challenges across the U.S. The Hanover Township Board of Education in New Jersey was sued by the state’s Attorney General Matthew Platkin in May for their own parental notification policy that would require staff to inform parents about their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. That same month, Superior Court Judge Stuart Minkowitz ruled that the school board had to work with the attorney general’s office to change their parental notification policy so as to not discriminate against LGBTQ+ students. Three other New Jersey districts—Middletown Township, Marlboro Township and Manalapan-Englishtown—were also sued over the summer for similar policies. The Superior Court issued a preliminary injunction for all three districts, temporarily pausing the policies from going into effect while the cases are still pending.
Parents, on the other hand, have also previously sued school districts for not fully informing them of their child’s change in name or gender identity. In Littlejohn v. School Board of Leon County in Florida, the Littlejohns sued the school district in 2020 after officials met with their 13-year-old child because they were confused about their gender identity. Counselors came up with a support plan for the child, and asked the child for their preferred pronouns and bathroom of choice. The child’s parents said the school was interfering with the upbringing of their child, familial privacy, and due process rights when they sought to help.
Chief Judge Mark E. Walker dismissed the lawsuit in January, saying that the school acted within their scope of discretionary authority, but the case has been appealed to the 11th Circuit. A trial date has not been announced.
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