SANTA ANA, Calif. – California's attorney general sued a Southern California school district Monday over its new policy requiring schools to notify parents if their children change their gender identification or pronouns, the latest blow in an intensifying battle between a handful of school districts and the state about the rights of trans kids and their parents.
Attorney General Rob Bonta said policies like the one adopted by Chino Valley Unified School District will forcibly out transgender students and threaten their well-being. But the district's board president and supporters say parents have a right to know the decisions their children are making in schools.
Bonta is seeking a court order to immediately block the policy in Chino Valley, a district about 35 miles (55 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, which requires schools to notify parents within three days if employees become aware a student is asking to be treated as a gender other than the one listed on official records.
“For far too many transgender children and gender nonconforming youth, school serves as their only safe haven — a place away from home where they can find validation, safety, privacy. We have to protect that,” he said. He argued that the policy discriminates against the students and violates the state constitution’s requirement of equal protection for all.
A couple of nearby districts have adopted similar policies and at least one more is considering doing so. The moves have stoked fierce debates at local school board meetings amid an intense national conversation over transgender rights as other states have sought to impose bans on gender-affirming care, bar trans athletes from girls and women’s sports, and require schools to “out” trans and nonbinary students to their parents. Last week, activists who want parental notification policies and who oppose the teaching of certain LGBTQ material in schools demonstrated in Los Angeles.
In California, the proposals are coming from communities that have elected more conservative school board members since the COVID-19 pandemic, putting them increasingly at odds with Gov. Gavin Newsom and fellow Democrats who dominate the state's political leadership.
Among them is Chino Valley Unified President Sonja Shaw, who said the lawsuit was no surprise as state officials have repeatedly taken steps “to shut parents out of their children's lives.”
“We will stand our ground and protect our children with all we can because we are not breaking the law,” Shaw said in a text message. “Parents have a constitutional right in the upbringing of their children. Period.”
Chino Valley spokesperson Andi Johnston said the district's policy protects transgender students by requiring schools to notify social services or law enforcement if the student believes they are in danger. In such circumstances, staff wouldn't notify parents until the appropriate agencies had investigated the concern, Johnston said.
The notification policies aren't the only battle between local schools and California officials over LGBTQ policies. Earlier this year, Newsom threatened to fine the Temecula Valley Unified School District after it rejected an elementary school social studies curriculum that included books mentioning politician and gay rights advocate Harvey Milk. The district later reversed course.
State lawmakers are considering legislation aimed at ensuring school curricula reflects gender, racial and cultural diversity. The bill would require the California Department of Education to release guidance on managing in-school conversations about race and gender.
Earlier this month, Newsom said state lawmakers also were drafting legislation to address policies to notify parents if their child changed their gender identity. But Assemblymember Chris Ward representing San Diego, vice chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, said legislation won't be introduced this year while the complexities of the issue are still being studied.
The parental notification policies began cropping up after Republican state lawmaker Bill Essayli proposed a statewide bill on the issue that never received a hearing in Sacramento. He then started working with local school board members like Shaw and the California Family Council to draft the notification policy that was voted on in Chino Valley.
Temecula Valley and Murrieta Valley have adopted similar policies, and Orange Unified is debating it.
A group of about 30 parents and proponents of parental notification policies gathered Monday afternoon outside the Capitol to announce a campaign for proposed ballot initiatives to present to voters in November 2024.
The measures would require schools to notify parents if their child identifies as transgender, ban trans students from participating in girls’ sports and ban gender-affirming surgeries for minors. California law requires children to get parental consent before undergoing gender-affirming surgeries.
Bonta’s office has about two months to write summaries for the measures before the group can start collecting signatures needed to place them on the ballot.
Some critics of the policies worry about their impact on trans students who live in households that are not accepting or abusive. But Essayli said the state shouldn't assume parents are a danger to their children and noted that teachers are required to report abuse if they become aware of it.
“Parents must be involved in this extremely delicate and complicated time in a child’s life,” Essayli said. “It is way too dangerous and reckless to exclude parents.”
Jody Herman, a public policy scholar at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law, said requiring school staff to notify parents if their child identifies as trans is taking a “gamble” with someone’s life.
“Parents are not uniformly accepting,” Herman said.
Teachers are also caught in the debate. Greg Goodlander, a high school French teacher and president of the Orange Unified Educators Association, said the proposal has been a distraction and there's no evidence it would enhance student learning.
“Our teachers are not trained on how to handle this situation, and this has not been negotiated with the association in our contract," Goodlander said. ___ Austin reported from Sacramento. Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin @sophieadanna