Federal Court Blocks School Secrecy Policy as Calif. Court Blocks Parental Notification Policy
A federal judge on Thursday preliminarily enjoined Escondido Unified School District (USD) and other California officials from enforcing a policy requiring teachers to hide students’ gender identity from parents against two Christian teachers. The ruling comes days after a state court temporarily blocked an opposite policy in the Chino Valley USD, which required teachers to inform parents if their student sought to change his or her gender identity.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, of the Southern District of California, found that teachers “[Elizabeth] Mirabelli and [Lori Ann] West face an unlawful choice along the lines of: ‘lose your faith and keep your job, or keep your faith and lose your job.’” The Bush appointee pilloried Escondido USD’s policy as “a trifecta of harm,” harming “the child who needs parental guidance,” the parents whose rights are curtailed, and the teachers “who are compelled to violate the parent’s rights,” and whose religious rights are violated. He dismissed the school district’s justification as the “mistaken view that the District bears a duty to place a child’s right to privacy above, and in derogation of, the rights of a child’s parents.”
Days earlier, on September 6, the San Bernardino Superior Court — a state court — had granted California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) a temporary restraining order, which blocked a Chino Valley USD policy that would require teachers to inform parents of their child’s gender identity.
Last month, Bonta launched a civil rights investigation against Chino Valley USD over what he termed a “forced outing policy” that “threatens the safety and well-being of LGBTQ+ students vulnerable to harassment and potential abuse from peers and family members unaccepting of their gender identity.” He filed a lawsuit on August 28, alleging that Chino Valley USD was illegally “subjecting transgender and gender nonconforming students to discrimination.”
“The Chino Valley Unified School District was right to implement a policy ensuring parents have access to information that impacts their children’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being,” responded Liberty Justice Center Senior Counsel Emily Rae. “We look forward to defending the propriety of this policy in court.”
Despite Bonta’s legal threat, other California school districts have continued to adopt a parental notification policy that is identical or nearly identical to Chino Valley USD. Murrieta Valley USD, Temecula Valley USD, the Anderson Union High School District all adopted their policies before the temporary restraining order was issued. Rocklin USD and Orange USD became the fifth and sixth districts to do so on September 7, while Dry Creek USD did so September 14.
However, the federal court’s decision could weaken Bonta’s chance of success in state court by establishing the legal status of an FAQ page compiled by the California Department of Education. In federal court, “state defendants maintain that the State Board of Education FAQs publication is not a state law but only attempts to describe state law,” noted the judge. Yet in the attorney general’s complaint against Chino Valley USD, “the Attorney General asserts that the school district is violating state law” and “specifically refers to the same FAQs publication identified in this proceeding,” the judge stated. “The Complaint asserts, ‘the California Department of Education (CDE) has issued statewide guidance since at least 2014, generally recommending that school officials and staff members not ‘out’ students to their parents or guardians against the student’s wishes.’”
While Bonta has appealed to CDE guidance that contradicts the parental notification policy, “he can’t cite a law,” argued Chino Valley Board of Education President Sonja Shaw during a panel discussion at the Pray Vote Stand Summit (PVSS) on Friday.
Instead, California law stipulates that “parents … have an absolute right to access to any and all pupil records related to their children.”
Family Research Council Senior Fellow for Education Studies Meg Kilgannon, who moderated the panel, blamed “the lawyers that are advising the school boards” for pushing school districts to hide students’ gender identity from parents. These lawyers, she said, “are extremely ideological in a lot of cases, and they are the ones who are telling school board members that they will be sued.”
Shaw experienced this firsthand. “The legal [counsel] said, ‘It’s illegal.’ And I said, ‘Okay, cool … I don’t know very much about law, but I do want to know what law that we’re going to break,’” she narrated. “[This] went on and on. ‘Mrs. Shaw, it’s illegal. The JPA says it’s illegal. They said it’s illegal.’ And I said, ‘Okay, cool. But you give me all these documents and I still don’t see a law that’s cited.’” After four weeks, Shaw got the lawyer’s final answer, “‘Mrs. Shaw, guess what? They don’t have a law.’ Ding, ding, ding. Time to bring the policy forward. Let’s go. Because now we know it’s not illegal.”
Escondido USD evidently accepted their legal counsel’s first answer, because District Judge Benitez recorded that it “considers itself bound by the statements in the FAQs publication as a matter of law. Suggesting that EUSD is correct in its characterization, the attorney general for the State of California recently relied on the FAQs publication in suing a school district for violating state law.”
The judge demanded that the state must show more than just the CDE guidance to prove that parental notification is illegal. “With no evidence to the contrary at this point, it must be concluded that the State is the driving force behind EUSD’s alleged violations of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” continued Benitez. “If the plaintiffs succeed in proving their case, a permanent injunction against the state defendants will be necessary to accord full relief.”
The two Christian teachers in Escondido USD are not the first to run afoul of California district policies requiring teachers to hide students’ gender identity from their parents. Earlier this year, a Christian teacher in Jurupa USD was fired for the same reason. The district wrote, “Based on your religious beliefs, you cannot be dishonest with parents. … The district cannot accommodate your religious beliefs that … prohibit you from maintaining a student’s gender identity and refraining from disclosing a student’s gender identity from his/her/their parent(s)/guardians.”
Yet this controversial policy is not confined to California. In August, Parents Defending Education found at least 1,040 U.S. school districts, including over 18,000 schools responsible for 11 million students, with policies instructing or encouraging teachers to hide students’ gender identities from parents. Such policies have been found everywhere from California to New Jersey and Maryland to Iowa.
“They are literally coming for our children,” warned Action Up America Founder Quisha King during the PVSS panel. “They’re not joking. They’re not kidding. They really mean what they say. And so, we need to take them seriously and continue to stand up and fight back.”
King argued that the current education controversy is not just procedural but ideological. “When you dig into critical race theory, when you dig into the gender critical [theory], these ideologies — they come from Marxism,” she urged.
King argued this ideology would have detrimental consequences. “If you listen to what they actually believe, they are the ones who sound just like the KKK. They are the ones that are being racist,” she said. “They are the ones that are trying to divide our children from each other, divide parents against their own children, and they’re constantly trying to make America seem like it’s a place that it is not.”
“It is unbelievable to me how radical the Left has become,” agreed Oklahoma State School Superintendent Ryan Walters, another panelist. “They are fighting tooth and nail to keep graphic pornography in school like ‘Gender Queer’ and ‘Flamer.’ These are the books they’ve injected into schools in our state and across the country. But guess what mortifies them: the Constitution, having the Bible in a school classroom.”
Because many teachers and their school board allies espouse a Marxist ideology and many parents do not, many schools now treat parents as enemies, the panelists argued. Shaw’s political involvement began when she and other parents “started a grassroots” to help students recover from the learning loss of COVID shutdowns. “We started to say, ‘How can we fix this? How can we help provide solutions?’ But we were shut down with our school district,” she said. “Through that, a lot of us parents found out there was a school board. I didn’t know what a school board was. … We saw our school board had a wicked agenda. They were part of the problem.”
“At this point, parents need to assume they will be deceived by their school if their child makes a gender identity declaration to a teacher or counselor at school,” Kilgannon told The Washington Stand last month.
In October 2021, the National School Boards Association wrote a letter requesting the Biden administration to investigate concerned parents as domestic terrorists. The Biden administration, which had colluded in drafting the letter, did expend counterterrorism resources to investigate parents, according to a House Subcommittee report.
“This is Joe Biden’s war on our kids, on our schools, on our faith, on our country,” said Walters. “And what we see here is a clear attack to push radical gender ideology in the classroom, destroy American history, and take all rights away from parents.”
“This is the final stage of what the Left has been working on for a long time. Create a Department of Education that can be weaponized against parents. There shouldn’t be a Department of Education,” said Walters. “You’ve seen this department push Common Core, critical race theory, [and] now radical gender theory. They partner up with the teachers’ unions. They partner up with every radical group in the country to target moms and dads.”
“It is the end stage of a Marxist goal to break down the family, to break down society, to create a school system who will only perpetuate a voting block for them in the future. That’s what ultimately they are trying to do here, is a fundamental reshaping of the country,” Walters added.
Walters encouraged parents with the means to do so to “send their kids to a private Christian school,” to a charter school, or homeschool them. He said that universal school choice is one policy that makes that possible for parents without the means to do so otherwise. “My kids [are] fortunate enough [to have] parents that pulled them out, yanked them out,” said Shaw. “But not all kids have that availability.”
However, the panelists said that parents must remain engaged in public education. “Maybe your child isn’t in a public school, or indoctrination camps, as I like to call them nowadays,” said King. “But they have to live and work around these children who [are, and who] will grow up and be in the world one day.”
Shaw encouraged parents to run for school board, as she did. “We had to flip some seats. We went against some big dogs with a lot of money. The person I ran against had over $150,000 on a school board — You don’t even hear that in state elections — running Fox 11 News commercials,” she said. “But as parents, we literally united together. We knocked on every single door in that area. And not only did we flip one school board seat, but we flipped two for a four to one majority that had parental rights.”
For families in friendly states other than California, King endorsed Florida as a “blueprint.” There, the conservative DeSantis administration was implementing major education reforms, but parents still needed to get involved and influence the opinions of their friends and neighbors. “There are so many parents that will support you. But people are scared,” she said. “It’s imperative to all of us that we encourage those who feel like they can’t say anything, … to help them understand what is truly on the line: the next generation of leaders, thinkers, scientists, innovators.”
Wherever parents live, King encouraged them to “start talking to your children and your grandchildren. … If they are out of your sight five days a week, seven to eight hours a day, you need to probe what exactly is happening behind those classroom doors.” For older children, she advised, “if age appropriate, help them to understand what is actually going on. … When they hear it, they will know, ‘Oh, Mom, Dad, red flag, something happened at school today that you need to know about.’”
“At the end of the day, these are issues that are right and wrong,” said King. “As a believer, … standing on the Word of God, we just go forward because that’s what we’re called to do.” Walters agreed. “Wouldn’t it have been amazing to be there with the Founders as they crafted the Constitution? But you know what? Like Queen Esther was told, maybe you were born for times like these.”
The panelists had no illusions that standing up for children would be easy or cost-free. “They smear you. They try to demean you,” King said, but “when they start to call you names, you know you’re over the target.” Left-wing protestors hurled threats and vile chants at the Moms for Liberty Summit in June.
When the Chino Valley USD Board’s new pro-parent majority “hit the ground running” earlier this year, they faced instant opposition, leading to a crescendo this summer as Board President Shaw and her family experienced deaths threats for weeks. “And here we are now, because of common sense, being sued by our attorney general,” she said. Yet “we’ve seen our communities come together. They’re supporting us despite the death threats, … despite being called every name in the book. [We] have so much beautiful support, not just from our local community, but all over California and now all over the nation.”
Despite the opposition, activists like King, school board officials like Shaw, and state officials like Walters are committed to keep fighting for parents and their children. “We come together, and we protect our kids, and we fight hard. … We’re going to bring this to Supreme Court,” said Shaw. She doesn’t expect the road to be easy, but she plans to bathe every step in prayer. “When we bring this prayerfully into the higher courts, then we can win something that protects all of our children from coast to coast,” she said.
Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.