‘A perfect microcosm’: one town’s lawsuit and the rightwing battle for California schools | California

Kelly Staley first learned about the lawsuit from a reporter. A parent was suing her, the superintendent of the Chico unified school district, over an alleged “parental secrecy” policy, the reporter said, claiming a school counselor had encouraged her fifth-grader to adopt a new gender and that the school had withheld that information.

Staley, who has overseen this northern California school district for nearly two decades, was caught off-guard. The district has never had any such policy, she said, but adhered to the student privacy guidance set by the state department of education that prevents schools from outing students to their parents without permission.

The call in January 2023 was just the beginning for Chico. In the following months, the district would face a firestorm. Fox News covered the case, describing it as another example of schools overstepping their bounds. Staley and her staff received death threats, and the area’s congressman warned of “fiscal ramifications”.

“It was difficult. We had packed board meetings, people saying you’re keeping secrets from parents,” Staley said.

The conflict over student privacy and “parental rights” would come to take center stage in the political battles playing out in California schools in 2023. In conservative pockets in the overwhelmingly Democratic state, several school boards adopted policies requiring schools to notify parents if their child requested to use a different name or pronouns. The state attorney general has sued the districts, accusing them of violating the California constitution and harming LGBTQ+ students.

The issue is part of what experts say is a national rightwing effort to bring culture war issues into public schools. Conservatives have sought to expand their political power in the state, and across the US, by focusing on schools and the nonpartisan bodies that oversee public education – and have capitalized on frustrations with the Democratic administration in Sacramento.

“Chico has been a perfect microcosm display of what we see playing out on the national level,” said Caitlin Dalby, the president of the Chico unified board of education. “Chico is very representative of at least what we see the electoral split being as far as politics and how much we’re seeing politics become more entrenched in school boards.”

Before 2020, meetings of the Chico unified school district board of education, which oversees schools that serve roughly 12,000 students, attracted relatively little attention. But as was the case across the US, the pandemic changed that.

Chico, a tree-lined college town of about 100,000 in the far north of California, leans Democratic but Butte county, where the city is located, is nearly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Frustrations over school closures and masking policies resulted in tense and packed school board meetings, and an unsuccessful recall effort of four school board members.

Downtown Chico, California, on 5 September 2020. Photograph: Max Whittaker/The Guardian

Similar scenes repeated themselves throughout the state – sometimes with greater intensity. In 2021, the California school boards association, which represents nearly 1,000 education agencies, reported that school board members had been “accosted, verbally abused, physically assaulted, and subjected to death threats against themselves and their family members”. Not everywhere experienced such extremes, but it was clear schools had become a greater focal point.

Republicans saw an opportunity in pandemic frustrations to grow their political power, setting up an organization to help parents run for seats on school boards. Hard-right candidates flipped relatively few seats in 2022 but did manage to make some gains. Public schools have remained increasingly politicized and the right – including groups such as Moms for Liberty – has sought to make use of ideological divisions over issues like race, gender and sexuality.

“You have a coordinated, highly resourced effort loosely tied to the Republican party that’s been moving these issues forward across the country,” said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA.

By January 2023, the Chico unified school district seemed to be moving on from the most tense political conflicts that had characterized the pandemic when the superintendent and the board of education were served with the lawsuit.

Aurora Regino said her daughter was in fifth grade and told a counselor she felt like a boy. The counselor, the lawsuit said, encouraged the 11-year-old to “adopt” a male identity and informed her teacher. Regino learned of this only after her daughter told her grandmother about it.

Regino was supportive, she said in the filing, but frustrated that the district had not informed her about her child’s decision. District staff told her that state law required they not disclose that information without her daughter’s consent, the lawsuit states, and the superintendent said that Chico “must work within the confines of the law”.

“I’m just really appalled at the actions the school district has taken,” Regino said in an interview with Fox News, arguing that her daughter wanted to tell her but that the counselor “dismissed her request”. Her daughter no longer identifies as male, she said.

The Center for American Liberty, a conservative legal non-profit founded by Harmeet Dhillon, a Trump 2020 campaign legal adviser, took up the case. The Center for American Liberty argued that the guidance adopted by Chico unified “flips the constitution on its head” and violates the 14th amendment.

Regino and the Center for American Liberty did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit came as a surprise, said Eileen Robinson, who has served on the Chico unified school board since 2010. “We had a policy in place to deal with a student who came forward and wanted to change their pronouns and be recognized as a different (gender) at school. We followed that policy,” she said.

The lawsuit and the high-profile media coverage brought intense backlash. Chico unified was inundated with threatening phone calls for about a month, Staley said, most from out of the area and from as far as Germany and Canada. Board members and staff received threats.

“I certainly had more than a couple ‘you should die’ (messages),” Staley said.

A local parental rights group gathered outside the district office with signs that read “no secrets” and “let them be kids”. A Republican state lawmaker introduced a bill that would have forced school districts to notify parents about their children’s gender identities. Doug LaMalfa, the congressman who represents the area, introduced a similar bill that would ban US schools from recognizing a student’s gender identity if “inconsistent with the minor’s biological sex” without parental permission.

Tensions came to a head at a marathon 5 April meeting of the Chico unified board of education where trustees were set to vote on whether to keep their current policy following state guidance.

The packed seven-hour meeting opened with remarks from a conservative board member who argued the district should not continue spending money fighting the lawsuit and protecting a “cloak-and-dagger secrecy policy”.

Dozens of speakers followed. Some argued that trans students would be put at risk if the district did away with the policy, while others said the policy was depriving parents of their rights. Regino herself addressed the board, as did LaMalfa, an ultra-conservative representative who voted against certifying the 2020 election.

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Taking off his hat before speaking, the congressman made anti-trans comments and argued that schools were “helping coerce” students. “It’s either XX or it’s XY. The proof is in the DNA,” he said.

When Dalby, the board president, informed LaMalfa his time was up, he said Chico would face “fiscal ramifications” for the policy. Screams erupted as he left the podium.

The board ultimately voted 3-2 to keep its current policy upholding students’ right to privacy unless the state legislature or case law changed it, said Dalby.

“We determined as a board that it was outside of our scope to interpret the law any differently than it had already been interpreted by many educational agencies,” she said.

In July, a federal judge ruled against Regino, dismissing her claim. District staff weren’t forcing students to change their identities, the judge, John Mendez, wrote, but affirming their identities and only disclosing that information as the student wished.

“The issue before this court is not whether it is a good idea for school districts to notify parents of a minor’s gender identity and receive consent before using alternative names and pronouns, but whether the United States Constitution mandates such parental authority,” Mendez wrote. “This court holds that it does not.”

Similar tensions played out across California in 2023. A school board in southern California struck down its social science curriculum that referenced Harvey Milk – the board president referred to the gay rights activist as a “pedophile” – which resulted in a $1.5m fine. In June, there were fights outside a Los Angeles elementary school during a protest over a Pride month assembly. Several northern California schools received bomb threats in August and September after anti-LGBTQ+ far-right activists targeted the district.

People fight each other in a crowd with an American flag as a backdrop.
Protesters clash over Pride day in Los Angeles on 2 June 2023. Photograph: David Swanson/Reuters

Meanwhile, in August, the Chino Valley unified school district became the first in the state to adopt a policy requiring schools to notify parents if their children change their gender identification or pronouns. At least six other districts have passed similar policies. California’s attorney general has sued, describing Chino Valley’s policy as “wrongfully and unconstitutionally discriminating against and violating the privacy rights of LGBTQ+ students”. A judge ruled the district cannot enforce the policy until the matter is decided in court.

Christina Gagnier, who served on the Chino Valley school board until 2022, said that the attack on the rights of LGBTQ+ students is part of a top-down national movement to get these issues into public schools that will have broad impacts.

“School districts, school boards don’t exist in a silo. What happens at the school board trickles down into schools and the larger community,” said Gagnier, who pointed to the presence of extremist groups like the Proud Boys at Chino Valley school board meetings.

LGBTQ+ youth who feel that their schools affirm their identities reported lower rates of suicide attempts, according to a 2022 survey by the Trevor Project.

Gagnier lost her seat to a conservative who has pushed the board’s extreme policies. She has since founded an organization, Our Schools USA, that aims to counter the rightwing movement and help elect candidates who care about all students, she said.

The increased politicization of schools is already affecting students and educators, Rogers, the UCLA professor, said. Two-thirds of California principals he’s surveyed have reported substantial local political conflict over “hot button educational issues”, and more than three-quarters reported that their students had made “hostile or demeaning remarks” to LGBTQ+ classmates.

The rise in violent rhetoric around political issues is particularly concerning, Rogers said, and threatens the foundations of American democracy.

“There’s a reason why we look to public schools to model and develop the capacities of young people to work together through differences and to use restorative practices such that violence doesn’t need to be employed when there are differences,” Rogers said.

“When exactly the opposite is occurring toward the governance bodies of our schools, that’s a dangerous precedent.”

In Chico, recent school board meetings have been calmer and quieter. Hardly anyone was present at a November meeting on state testing results, Staley said.

The lawsuit, Staley argued, has little to do with Chico at all and is instead a larger philosophical and political split in the state and the US. The superintendent hopes people will come to see that the decision is not up to a local school board, but legislators.

If Chico were to reverse course and defy the state, they could face a lawsuit from California officials. “We’re going to get sued either way and have to litigate that whichever stance we take,” Stanley said.

Regino has appealed the judge’s decision. Twenty-three states submitted amicus briefs to the court in support of Regino, arguing that the ruling should be reversed. Staley has heard talk of it making its way to the supreme court, a prospect that worries the district.

“The cost of this has gone beyond our insurance for litigation, so now in order to continue to respond it’s costing us out of our general fund dollars – so it’s taking money away from every single kid in the district,” said Robinson, the school board member. “That’s not what our students need.”

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