LGBTQ students are returning to hostile school environments — even in California

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In school districts across California, students are returning to classrooms under a cloud of uncertainty in the wake of multiple attacks on LGBTQ rights that began last spring.

Erin Allday | Contributor

Starting seventh grade last week came with the usual nervous excitement of a new school year for Juniper Loveday-Brown, a student at Willowside Middle School in Santa Rosa. Juniper, 12, was looking forward to seeing friends, especially classmates in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance club. And Juniper, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, knew that most of their teachers would display Pride flags in the classrooms, signaling these were safe and welcoming spaces for LGBTQ students.

But a storm cloud hung over that first day nonetheless: There would be no rainbow banner waving on the main campus flagpole. Twice last academic year, students had asked the Oak Grove Union school board that oversees Juniper’s school for permission to raise the Pride flag.

Twice their request was denied. “The school talks about being welcoming and being like, everyone belongs,” Juniper said. “But it’s important when people come to school they automatically feel welcome, and like they belong there. Seeing the Pride flag, it would show what the school stands for.” Chino. Temecula. Santa Rosa. In communities across California, students like Juniper are returning to classrooms in the wake of attacks on LGBTQ rights that began in the spring.

Pressure campaigns, largely led by conservative parent groups, have successfully lobbied school boards to out students’ gender-affirming requests, censor curriculums, and ban books and Pride flags. In some cases, school board clashes have become intense and even violent. California remains one of the most progressive states in the country when it comes to supporting and protecting LGBTQ students and their families, said advocates working to retain those supports. But the battles show that California is not immune from the culture wars driving anti-LGBTQ sentiments nationally. “It’s really intensified,” said Jennifer Chou, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California.

Even a year ago, the ACLU would typically get about one report a month related to LGBTQ issues in California; now it’s one or two a week, Chou said. Aside from the policies themselves being problematic, Chou said, the result of even raising the issues is that many LGBTQ youth feel unsupported and like their community is under attack. Chou said reports of bullying and discrimination in schools also have climbed. “In some of these communities that have had these fights recently, we’ve heard from students that there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear,” Chou said. “Just knowing that there are people in your school community that don’t want you to be there — that is one of the most harmful things about the way that the narrative has shifted.” Parents and school leaders who have supported policies that challenge LGBTQ rights say they’re protecting all students by prioritizing academics over what they consider dangerous “ideology” around gender and sexuality.

Much of the anti-LGBTQ policies have come out of districts in conservative parts of the state, in particular clustered around the Inland Empire in Southern California. Temecula Valley Unified School District (Riverside County) garnered statewide attention when the school board refused to approve a new history curriculum because it included references to Harvey Milk, a civil rights icon and the first out gay lawmaker in California. The district later buckled under pressure and approved the textbooks before the school year started.

Among the most contentious issues to come up in the past year involves parental notification — whether parents should be told when children change their name or pronouns at school. In June, school board members with Chino Valley Unified School District (San Bernardino County) passed what may be the first-in-state policy formalizing parental notification; since then at least one other district has introduced a similar policy, and others are considering it. But policies meant to curb LGBTQ rights have cropped up all over the state, even in traditionally liberal communities like Oak Grove Unified, which straddles Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

In some cases, school board meetings have become battlegrounds for bitter debates, even when policy isn’t in play. At a board meeting for San Ramon Valley Unified in nearby Contra Costa County last week, a resolution over whether to display Pride flags during the month of June on school campuses eventually passed, after hours of rancorous public comment. “We are a progressive state, however we’re also a state with thousands of schools, and we’re an incredibly diverse state, demographically and politically,” Chou said. “We’re also a state with a strong culture of local control for our schools,” which is one reason school boards have become a popular theater for anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

The parental notification policy has proved especially contentious, earning criticism from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Tony Thurmond, state schools superintendent, who attended a Chino Valley school board meeting to speak out against it during public comment. Critics of the policy have said that such a notification system could harm young people who are not out to their families and that schools have a responsibility to protect the privacy of students. But Sonja Shaw, president of the Chino Valley Unified school board, said the policy is meant to bolster support for young people facing gender identity issues by making sure their parents are included in conversations.

Policies introduced in other districts that would remove LGBTQ references from curriculum or keep certain books out of classrooms and libraries are similarly protective, Shaw said, because they force schools to focus on traditional academics.The message LGBTQ students should get is that “you’re loved, you’re cared for,” Shaw said. “We want to put safeguards in place and take care of you. If anything, we are fighting for you right now.” That’s not the message that many LGBTQ young people are hearing, though, whether school boards are removing flags or books or simply playing host to vitriolic debate. “I can’t overstate how negative an impact it is on queer and trans kids to be entering a school day after day, or coming back after summer, into a school in a district that they feel isn’t going to keep them safe,” said Chelsea Kurnick, chair of the board of directors for Positive Image, an LGBTQ center in Santa Rosa.

Even a decision to not raise the Pride flag can have repercussions, Kurnick said. “We have a lot of schools (in Sonoma County) that raise the flag, and it’s incredibly powerful,” she said. “But when you have schools stifle that, disallow that display, it sends the message that this is something you should hide or try to change about yourself. And that has really serious consequences for queer and trans people.” At Oak Grove Unified — which includes just two schools, Oak Grove Elementary and Willowside Middle — the decision to not allow the Pride flag to be raised at either campus came down to the fact that no banners other than the state and U.S. flags have ever flown on the main poles, officials said. “The Oak Grove Union School District is deeply committed to creating safe and inclusive school environments for all, including our LGBTQ+ students, staff, and families,” said Superintendent Amber Stringfellow in a statement.

The decision to ban the flag from school flagpoles “should in no way be interpreted as a lack of commitment to inclusivity,” she said, noting that teachers and other staff members are encouraged to display it in classrooms and other spaces. But Juniper and their mom, Andrea Loveday-Brown, said the decision cast a pall over the start of the school year anyway. “There was not the excitement to go back to school this year, in the way I would have hoped,” Loveday-Brown said. Juniper said seeing the iconic rainbow flag flying in front of the school every day — or even just for the month of June — would let all students know that this is a supportive environment.

They worried especially about the new sixth-graders just starting at their middle school, who may not know that there are teachers and students ready to support them. “I want them to know that the school makes them feel welcome, and like they belong,” Juniper said. “If they had put the Pride flag up, they would come to school on the first day knowing that.”

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