How far do parental rights go? A California case offers clues.

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How far do parental rights go? A California case offers clues.

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A lawsuit against a California school district over a requirement to alert parents if a student identifies as a different gender highlights a lack of trust between some educators and families.

After several years of nationwide protests at school board meetings over pandemic mask policies, and how to teach about race and racism, the loudest uproars are now around transgender policies. Are schools, in their efforts to be inclusive toward marginalized groups, infringing on parental rights to oversee their children’s upbringing? 

The clash in Chino is far from isolated. Rob Bonta, the state attorney general, has criticized other California school districts which passed or are considering similar policies. In New Jersey, four school districts were sued by their state to halt parental notification policies on student sexual orientation and gender identity. On the flip side, parents in California, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Virginia have also sued school districts who didn’t alert them when their child gender-transitions. It’s become a highly politicized topic harnessed by both Democrats and Republicans as matters of civil rights. 

In Chino and elsewhere, much of the debate hinges on trust. Many parents don’t trust schools to loop them into critical issues facing their children, and some school leaders point to parents who have shunned or abused children struggling with gender identity. Yet, by all accounts, most parents and most educators want what’s best for students.

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“Research has clearly established – and common sense, I would argue, also establishes – that building trust between educators and families is really important. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do,” says John Rogers, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who researches the effects of political division on U.S. schools. 

Student and parental rights 

Chino and adjacent Chino Hills, just east of Los Angeles, are small cities made up of close-knit neighborhoods, many of them master-planned. The largest employers include the Canyon Ridge mental health hospital, the state men’s prison, and Jacuzzi – as in spas. Voters here in San Bernardino County skew somewhat liberal. A slight majority voted for Joe Biden, and the number of contributions to Democrats outpaced those to Republicans by 3 to 1 between 2018 and 2021.

The Chino Valley Unified School district is also one of the area’s largest employers, serving 26,000 students across 34 schools in Chino and Chino Hills. Just over 7% of the district’s families live below the poverty line – slightly less than the national rate of nearly 9% for families. The ethnically diverse district is mostly Hispanic (55%), Asian (20%) and white (12%). 

On July 20, the school board, by a 4 to 1 vote, passed the policy that requires schools to alert parents within three days if their child takes any action to indicate a gender transition. That includes asking to be called by a different name, using a different bathroom, or asking to play on a sports team for a different gender. In some cases, parents would not be alerted if staff felt the student would be in danger, according to the policy.

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A spokesperson for Mr. Bonta says California’s lawsuit against the district is not questioning the role of parents in the lives of children – rather, it is safeguarding students’ physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. 

“While many transgender or gender nonconforming youth are fortunate to have parents or guardians who are accepting of their gender identity, others are not so lucky,” his office wrote in an email. “Chino Valley’s forced outing policy endangers those who do not have accepting or supportive home environments and creates a discriminatory environment for gender non-conforming students.”

Nationally, 1.4% of students between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to data from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. That figure drops to 0.5% of adults. 

Protections for LGBTQ students are embedded in state and federal education codes. The federal Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act prohibits schools from outing gay or transgender students. Other laws protect equal access to educational resources. 

Advocates are concerned that transgender youth are among the country’s most vulnerable, with suicide rates four times the national average for young people. Thirty percent of transgender adults say they experienced homelessness or were kicked out of their home while growing up, according to a March 2023 survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Washington Post. 

Lawyers for the Chino school district argue that the notification policy does not dilute the privacy rights of a student who is transitioning publicly. Rather, it bolsters that student’s support system by widening it, says Emily Rae, senior counsel for the Liberty Justice Center in Chicago and lead attorney for the school district. 

“This policy fosters a system and procedures that will bring everyone to the table and help everyone understand the situation,” she says. “So this policy promotes the health and safety of these kids who may be hesitant to tell their parents right away.” 

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“How it should be”  

In Chino’s parks and an after-school hangout, it’s easy to find advocates for notification. “There’s nothing a school should be able to do without the knowledge of the parent,” says Hiwot Tsegaye, as she and her five-year-old daughter walk their dog in the morning sunshine, around a pond ringed with picnic tables and a paved, tree-lined trail. 

Fifteen families received notifications of gender-changing actions in the short time the policy was active, according to school board president Sonja Shaw. 

“That’s how it should be,” says Chino parent Misty Startup about parent notifications. “It’s how it’s always been.” The mother of six, who is a nurse, points out that parents are responsible for every aspect of a child’s wellbeing until that person turns 18. What happens in school should be no exception.

“We want them to be safe. We want them to feel love. We want them to get an education,” she says. “This is about letting us parent our kids with the values, the morals, the beliefs that we have. And if our kids don’t like those values and those morals, then when they’re 18, they can say, ‘bye mom, dad.’” 

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Chino parent Nichole Vicario is closely monitoring the state’s lawsuit. Ms. Vicario raised eight children in Chino schools – two are still in high school – and “can’t fathom” parents not wanting to be notified of something as important as a child’s gender change.

“If my child is going through something like that and they’re carrying a secret in the home, it’s torture to them,” she says. “Working through that as a family, together, I think is really important. And the state has no right to tell us that we’re not important enough in our child’s life to help them work through something like that.”

Other parents are concerned that the school district is taking away the agency of students to protect their own identity and decision to share. One Chino Valley mom, who is a teacher’s aide, has empathy for students seeking privacy over sexual and gender identity. When her daughter came out to her as a lesbian recently, this parent was upset that her college freshman had taken eight months to share the revelation. 

Still, the aide, who requested not to print her name due to privacy concerns, would have felt worse if she’d heard it from her daughter’s school, before her daughter was ready to share it herself. 

Telling parents “has to be in the child’s time when it comes down to it, I think. When they’re ready,” she says.

Getting schools and parents to work together 

It’s well established that students are happier and more successful when parents and schools work together to support a child. Educators know that – and most will encourage students to talk with their parents, says Wendy Rock, ethics chair for the American School Counselor Association. 

“When LGBTQ youth have supportive parents and families, that acts as a protective factor. And that’s so important,” says Dr. Rock. “The goal would be to work with the student to help the student share that information with their parents, but allow them to do that on their own terms and not be forced.”

The teacher’s aide explains that she cherishes her students’ trust – trust that she says would be irrevocably broken if she had to disclose confidences to a student’s parents. “[Students] are not going to feel comfortable talking to you. They may not feel comfortable coming to school. Depending on the outcome at home, there’s just unlimited things that could come of it.”

Advocates for student privacy – which includes LGBTQ organizations – say the risks associated with disclosing a gender transition outweigh parental rights. And teachers unions for both Chino and the state pushed back on the notification policy, arguing teachers have enough on their plates without taking on tricky student-parent dynamics.  

Parents and teachers are partners, says Suzanne Wu, a teacher. “I tell them as much as I possibly can and communicate with them. But you’re talking about child sexuality. That is very deep, very personal.” Ms. Wu raised two children in Chino public schools, and teaches elementary school in a different district. 

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If a child doesn’t trust a teacher, they can’t learn from them, she says. Ms. Wu cheered when the notification policy was put on hold. “It’s not fair to the kids, not to the teachers. It’s not fair all around,” she says, adding the school board should be more concerned with academics and teacher vacancies. 

Research shows strong school-family relationships are a pillar of academic success. But political conflict is gnawing at those relationships. “In the last couple of years, there’s been a tendency in some communities to attack school board members, attack principals, attack teachers, simply because there is disagreement,” says Dr. Rogers, who co-authored a report on political conflict in schools. 

Moving past conflicts to respectful dialogue takes a lot of work. “You create spaces where you’re … not just trying to engage in public relations or trying to convince people that this is what to do,” says Dr. Rogers, who also heads up Center X at UCLA, which develops educators. 

“[It’s] really important that the educators act in humble ways, in ways that are respectful of the communities that they’re serving. Having said that, parents and family members, it’s important that they treat their public schools with the respect that public institutions deserve.”

Editor’s note: One source in this story requested her name be removed for privacy reasons; we agreed to do this.


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