by Leslie Layton & Natalie Hanson
posted March 7
A lawsuit filed against Chico Unified over its response to a student who was questioning their gender identity has opened a new front for Butte County culture wars.
The lawsuit, Regino v. Staley, filed Jan. 6 in federal court in the Eastern District of California, alleges that a school counselor at Sierra View Elementary coaxed a student into adopting a male identity after the fifth-grader confided that they “felt like a boy.” The lawsuit names as defendants the Board of Education and Chico Unified (CUSD) Superintendent Kelly Staley.
The ACLU of Northern California said late today that it has filed a motion to join the lawsuit “on the side of the Chico Unified School District and on behalf of the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Network.” The presiding judge will rule on the motion.
A community that was already deeply polarized is now engaged in debate over the role of public schools — and whether children have a right to privacy that must be honored when gender identity is discussed. Discussions that have become contentious at recent board meetings, meanwhile, have left some members of the LGBTQ community feeling increasingly unsafe. Parents are expected to address the board again at the March 8 meeting.
Eneri Adler, the mother of two trans children who attend Chico schools, said the Board of Education gave “a platform to a whole lot of hatred” by opening discussion in February on district policy. The board voted 4-1 in January -– with Trustee Eileen Robinson opposed — to agendize a discussion.
Adler said the February meeting was attended by “a lot of people who were homophobic” using “hate speak from Fox News.”
A group of about 16 parents appeared at the Feb. 15 meeting, rallying in opposition to what the lawsuit’s complaint calls CUSD’s “Parental Secrecy Policy.” (No policy under that name exists.) Many of the parents carried blue and white signs that pictured two children and stated, “Let them be kids!” Parents who spoke worried that schools were isolating children from their families; their outrage has been encouraged by right-wing leadership in the region and beyond.
The lawsuit, filed by Aurora Regino, a Chico mother, claims her child was encouraged to “socially transition” by adopting a new name and male pronouns. The school did not inform her, and the child later reverted to identifying as female.
What Adler called “hate speak” during the February board meeting looked different to Regino.
“People are seeing what’s going on in our schools,” Regino told ChicoSol in a telephone interview this week. “As long as the debates are respectful, a lot of positive can come out of it. There’s good that can come out of controversy.”
The lawsuit demands removal of the “Parental Secrecy Policy,” which Staley says doesn’t exist.
“… Chico Unified does not have a ‘Parental Secrecy Policy,’ nor do we ever try to change a student’s individual identity,” Staley wrote in a memo to parents and staff soon after news of the lawsuit broke. Later, at the January board meeting, Staley said the district had received “many, many questions and comments” since the lawsuit was filed.
“We’re consulting with state agencies that guide these decisions and we’re going to address these concerns in ways that can strengthen the family and school relationship,” Staley said.
The lawsuit is the third in California filed by the right-wing Center for American Liberty over gender identity. The Center is headed by Harmeet Dhillon, formerly an adviser to President Donald Trump. Dhillon, who appears often on Fox News, was recently defeated in the race for Republican National Committee chair.
Stonewall Executive Director Andrea Mox called the litigation “a litmus test”
The lawsuit also comes at a volatile moment nationally as conservatives fire up their base with attacks on transgender rights. On March 4, podcaster Michael Knowles, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, called for the “eradication of transgenderism,” alarming LGBTQ communities nationwide.
The Trans Legislation Tracker says 449 bills in 41 states have been introduced that would “block trans people from receiving basic healthcare, education, legal recognition, and the right to publicly exist.”
Stonewall Alliance Chico, which works closely with schools and families to offer resources for youth, says lawsuits like Regino’s are part of a nationwide assault on transgender rights. Executive Director Andrea Mox called the litigation “a litmus test” to see how California judges respond.
States that lack California’s protective policies often have environments that are hostile to LGBTQ students, she said. Those environments force children to be “super-closeted, and so they have to maintain this identity to satisfy their parents and their family – and if they step outside of that they risk becoming homeless.”
How Chico became a battleground
Chico Unified has no Parental Secrecy Policy, but what it does have is policy 5145.3 that reflects privacy and non-discrimination laws.
State law requires that school districts allow students to participate in activities based on their gender identity -– even if that identity doesn’t match their assigned sex on school records. The state’s Department of Education (CDE) has provided guidance on confidentiality and other issues based on its interpretation of state law and Constitutional provisions, said Paul Gant, the district’s attorney, in a presentation to the board last month.
CUSD’s 5145.3 policy is based on that guidance and recommended by the California School Boards Association. It closely reflects what CDE says: “Revealing a student’s gender identity or expression to others may compromise the student’s safety.”
As a result, in most cases parents would not be contacted without a child’s permission. In many cases students have a legal right to share information with a counselor confidentially.
Regino said she was “dumbfounded” when she discovered that her child was using a new name and different pronouns at school without her knowledge. She says her child was encouraged to talk to another family member first. Regino’s initial reaction, after the discovery, was to “make sure [her child] knew she would be loved and supported with whatever she wanted.”
After a meeting with Staley, who she described as “hard-nosed,” Regino said she began thinking about a lawsuit and researching on the Internet until she was referred to the Center for American Liberty.
Liberty Center attorney Eric Sell said the Center was interested in Regino’s case because policies like CUSD’s are “seen across the State of California.” The lawsuit was filed, and Regino decided to go public, appearing on national television in a Fox News interview.
Their goal in filing the lawsuit, Sell said, is to “stop the district from socially transitioning children” without parental consent.
“The notion that kids have a privacy right against their parents — that’s absurd and that’s not rooted in Constitutional law,” Sell said. “We certainly recognize that maybe a child is in an abusive household. But simply not supporting a new gender identity is not abuse.”
Sell said he’s concerned with the district’s adoption of a “blanket policy” that prevents it from automatically contacting parents — especially in the case of a transition that could “re-wire their psyche to identify as a new person, a new gender.”
But Dr. Christine Leistner, a Chico State human sexuality researcher who has been speaking at board meetings, took issue with the concept of a “rewire.” Leistner says research shows transgender identity becomes clear in incremental development that usually takes place over a period of years.
“That tells me the student had been thinking about it for quite a period of time before they got up the gumption to tell somebody,” Leistner said.
Research also shows that the majority of trans and non-binary children –- perhaps two-thirds -– don’t have supportive families, she added. Requiring parental consent could put many children at risk of rejection and homelessness.
“Large percentages [of LGBTQ children] are rejected because of gender identity or sexual orientation,” Leistner said.
That makes it difficult to hear parents protesting privacy rights, she added. “I honestly think this is hate disguised as being caring,” she added.
The February meeting became so contentious that at one point Board President Caitlin Dalby asked a man to move down the row, which he did, defusing a confrontation. Adler said a group of LGBTQ families left together at the meeting’s close after one parent expressed worry that the discussion might inspire a hate crime.
Link to violence
LGBTQ advocates say those parents had reason to worry -– that there is a link between misperceptions that can be promulgated by lawsuits like Regino’s and violence against their communities.
“There is just a non-debatable correlation between lawsuits like this, legislation, and the violence our communities face,” said Denise Spivak, CEO of CenterLink:The Community of LGBTQ Centers from her base in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“While all these adults are battling it out, they’re putting the fate of our youth in peril and it’s hard to watch.”
Stonewall’s Mox said local news stories repeated statements in the lawsuit’s complaint, without getting other perspectives, which could lead to transphobia and hate.
Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) also cited the lawsuit’s claims on Twitter, and his Butte County district representative, Teri DuBose, spoke at the Feb. 15 meeting. “Know that the Congressman shares your outrage,” she said, adding that he’s working on a federal bill to “stop this malpractice.”
Yet many people interviewed for this story said they find it hard to believe that school staff would proactively encourage LGBTQ identification.
“Even if someone goes to a counselor and says, ‘I don’t feel right in my body. I don’t feel [like my assigned sex]’, that counselor is probably going to be asking some more questions,” Adler said. “No one wakes up wanting to be gay or trans; it puts a target on your back.”
For some children, she said, it could be a phase.
“But if you make the child feel like scum for wanting to explore that phase, it’s just more trauma. It’s not like the schools are handing out puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy.”
Board Vice President Eileen Robinson said her views have been shaped by the experience of having two trans children in her extended family and receiving support from CUSD staff. A parent, Julie Nilsson, also said she worked in partnership with the district to ease the challenges of a transitioning child.
Attorney Gant told the board last month that the CDE’s guidance on privacy is untested in the courts. But several cases are pending that could have an impact.
“This is an area where great caution is required,” Gant said. “There’s a relatively narrow path, there are so many laws and Constitutional provisions that impact on this, that potential legal pitfalls exist.”
The Feb. 15 meeting closed with a narrow vote in favor of tabling the matter after Trustee Matt Tennis unsuccessfully moved to revise district policy in an out-of-order motion that Trustee Tom Lando called “grandstanding.”
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol. Natalie Hanson is a contributing writer/reporter.