Parents and educators voice opinions on the teaching of controversial topics
A Rocklin school board voted unanimously late Monday night to retain the policies that allowed a book about a transgender child to be read in kindergarten, but adopted a provision to forewarn parents of potentially controversial subject matter.
The vote followed months of controversy that erupted over the book being read at a Rocklin charter school’s story time. It culminated with a packed and sometimes raucous school board meeting Monday night that included three hours of emotional, often tearful, testimony from parents, students, activists and community members.
Opinions in the room were clearly divided, with one side of the chamber primarily supporting the school and its policies and the other side filled with parents who wanted notification of controversial issues and the ability to exempt their children from such lessons.
The summer’s furor threw the south Placer County community into the national spotlight.
It began when the children’s book “I Am Jazz” was brought to Rocklin Academy Gateway School on June 7 by a transgender student who wanted to share it with classmates. “I Am Jazz” is the story of a real-life transgender girl named Jazz Jennings.
The controversy surrounding the story grew during the summer. Some parents and school officials supported the decision to allow the book to be read. Others were angry, while family-values organizations called the story time a coming-out party for the little girl.
Conservative groups such as the California Family Council, the Capitol Resource Institute and the Pacific Justice Institute joined with the unhappy parents and condemned the school on national television. Hundreds of angry calls and emails from throughout the country flooded the school’s inboxes.
On Monday night, in front of an audience of about 500, the school board of the Rocklin Academy Family of Schools reviewed its policies and weighed a series of recommendations made by administrators. The recommendations included affirming the district’s literature selection policies and accommodating students who aren’t comfortable using a particular bathroom.
They also offered upset parents a concession: The schools will require teachers to inform parents if a controversial topic will be discussed in class.
However, the board denied a “model parental rights” proposal, put forward by a conservative policy group, that would have allowed parents to remove their children from sex- and family-education classes and to review related materials.
Karen England, executive director of the Capitol Resource Institute, which authored the parental-rights proposal, was among the first speakers at Monday’s meeting. England and many parents thought the administration’s plan would give schools and teachers too much leeway to decide what’s controversial and whether to notify parents.
As she spoke at the podium, England was cheered and booed for her views. She accused the people who jeered of being bullies, which drew loud laughter. Some people counted down with the clock above the dais as England’s time to speak dwindled. Parents on England’s side cheered as she walked down the aisle.
Before the meeting, Beryl Mayne, of Auburn, arrived with other members of the LGBT community holding signs that said, “Trans Rights are Human Rights,” “Trans Kids Have Courage” and “Love and Let Love.”
“It’s important tonight to support transgender children. It’s not about me. It’s about transgender children,” Mayne said.
“I’m a little bit disappointed because I thought our movement in accepting gay, lesbian and transgender children was moving forward,” she said. “We make two steps forward and we go back a step. It’s still a problem with accepting gays, lesbians and transgender.”
Some parents wore stickers on their shirts that said “Protect Parental Rights.”
Wendy Sickler, a parent of two children at Rocklin Gateway Academy, said, “I am concerned. I have a 4-year-old, and he would be starting kindergarten next year. My concern is that a book that was read was outside the curriculum, and it was a sensitive topic, and the parents weren’t notified.”
She said she’s not opposed to a transgender child being in the classroom. “I know that our kids are going to be exposed to different lifestyles, and that to me reinforces that they should notify parents,” she said. But Sickler felt stronger changes are needed than those brought before the school board.
“Today I come here with an open mind,” she said. “I do believe the proposal in the board packet is loose. It says they will endeavor to notify. I do not think that is strong, and I don’t think it makes staff accountable. If that is the policy that is in place, I will not support that.”
The school’s leadership was hoping the meeting would allow the school to focus again on educating children rather than being embroiled in controversy. A number of families have pulled their children from the school, though the number remains a matter of dispute between the divided factions.
After the vote, Board member Larry Steiner beseeched parents to come together and move forward now that a decision had been made.
“Rocklin has become a global media event,” Steiner said. “We have been overrun by special interests.”
He said those interests would soon be gone, and the school community would remain there working together. Staff and faculty are worried about the sort of comments that have appeared on social media, he said.
“Please let this end tonight,” he said. “We cannot forget Rocklin Academy is a school of choice. The hostility has to end. Let’s bring back our sense of community.”