Parents and educators voice opinions on the teaching of controversial topics
Months of controversy that threw a Rocklin charter school into the national spotlight culminated late Monday in a unanimous board decision to keep policies that allowed a kindergarten teacher to read a book about a transgender child in class.
The board meeting stemmed from a June kindergarten class in which a transgender student brought the children’s book “I Am Jazz” to Rocklin Academy Gateway School. The book tells the story of a real-life transgender girl.
About 500 people attended the meeting Monday night, with over 100 people offering emotional, even tearful, testimony over nearly five hours. Parents wearing “Protect Parental Rights” stickers on their chest sat across the aisle from parents wearing stickers saying they support LGBT rights.
Board members said they decided to continue allowing books about issues related to protected minority groups, including transgender people, to be read in class based on state law. The school’s administration had reviewed its policies over the last few months, gathering information from other schools, lawyers and professional organizations, according to Robin Stout, the school’s superintendent.
School staff noted that “I Am Jazz” is on the California Department of Education’s recommended literature list.
Some parents said they were angry they hadn’t been notified about the book before it was read. Others asked the school to ban certain books or begin an opt-out policy for parents who don’t want their children to hear about controversial topics.
Conservative groups such as the California Family Council, Capitol Resource Institute and Pacific Justice Institute joined with the unhappy parents and condemned the school on national television, calling the story time a “coming-out party.” Hundreds of angry calls and emails from throughout the country flooded the school’s inboxes.
A few parents said they had children in the kindergarten class who had come home from school the day the book was read, afraid they would change gender.
“We hold all these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal, but they aren’t created interchangeably,” said Matt McReynolds, attorney for the Pacific Justice Institute.
Activists for transgender rights also attended, as did leaders from civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I see they are wearing stickers that say ‘Support My Parental Rights,’ ” said Joseph Conley, parent of an adult transgender daughter. “I agree with that. For me it’s ensuring the safety of my child.”
He wondered why transsexualism was considered a controversial topic. “It’s not controversial among the LGBT community to just be themselves,” he said.
Supporters of the policy included Rocklin Academy parents such as Natallie Foster. She gave tearful testimony about how her child’s teacher had read a book about food allergies so her child’s classmates would understand the health condition.
“There is nothing different about my child’s situation, compared to this child’s situation,” she said.
After the vote, Larry Steiner, a board member for Rocklin Academy Family of Schools, beseeched parents to come together and move forward now that a decision had been made.
“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.”
After the meeting, Karen England, executive director of Capitol Resource Institute, said her opposition to the school’s policy is far from over. “The idea that this is going away after tonight’s vote can’t be more wrong,” she said.
England didn’t rule out a lawsuit. “We will assess,” she said. “There are several options.”
Capitol Resource Institute recently began a fundraising campaign around the controversy. “When the Rocklin Academy story reached us, it took us by surprise,” stated a press release. “This was happening here in our backyard.”
It asked supporters to stand with the parents and CRI and to “donate online today.” England, who lives in Reno, was a leading opponent of the California law that allows students to use bathrooms that relate to their gender identity.
In the months since the kindergarten story time, parents have asked the school to prohibit school employees from telling students they should refer to students by their preferred names or pronouns; asked that their children not be placed in classes with transgender children; asked the school to prohibit children from using bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity; and requested that the teacher who read the book face discipline, according to school officials.
On Monday night, the board weighed a series of recommendations made by the administrators. That included affirming the district’s book selection policies and accommodating students who aren’t comfortable using a particular bathroom.
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.
They also offered upset parents a concession: School staff will “endeavor” to inform parents if a controversial topic will be discussed in class. A number of parents at the meeting said the word “endeavor” doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t hold staff members accountable. They also complained that the staff would determine what is controversial.
School officials said they can’t guarantee notification because teachers often can’t control when controversial topics are brought up by students in class.
A number of families have pulled their children from the school, though the number remains a matter of dispute between the divided factions.
Stout said she expects more parents will pull their children out of the school because of the vote, but pointed out that about 1,360 children are on the waiting list for seats at its four schools.