Sunday Commentary: Culture Wars Are Coming to Our Schools – We’d Better Wake Up

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

For a number of months I have been watching on the sidelines, somewhat silent as a local cultural war is heating up locally.  Maybe it was Proud Boys coming to school board meetings, maybe it’s pushback over programs for trans students.  This is a fight with national implications bleeding into local politics.

There was an excellent op-ed this week in the NY Times from Pamela Paul, “What Liberals Can Learn From Ron DeSantis.”  I would have titled it slightly differently – maybe, why the left should take DeSantis more seriously.

Paul warns that “we shouldn’t underestimate DeSantis. He may resemble Trump in his politics — but not in his intellect or resolve.”

More ominously, just as we saw the left divided on issues like school closers and mandatory vaccinations and masks in schools, the right and DeSantis have made huge inroads on issues like Critical Race Theory, Stop WOKE Act, and Don’t Say Gay.

As Paul argues, “DeSantis’s maverick approach to primary, secondary and higher education has brought widespread condemnation from Democrats, particularly from their more progressive wing. But we should pay attention to why his policies land better with voters than with progressive critics.”

For instance, the Stop WOKE Act “limited the discussion of certain racial issues during diversity training sessions offered by private employers and in the classroom, may come with an incendiary name and some egregious efforts to curtail free speech.”

She argues that “it’s important to recognize that aspects of it appeal to Floridians tired of racial and ethnic divisiveness and the overt politicization of what’s taught in the classroom.”

Then you have the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which was scoffed at by opponents, but Paul argues the law “has reasonable and legitimate attractions for a broad range of parents who worry about the focus, efficacy and age appropriateness of what their kids are learning in primary and secondary school.”

But I think the right has also made huge inroads pushing back on trans rights—and we have seen this locally.

In early January, a right-wing blog did a PRA with DJUSD, and they claimed that documents obtained “reveal that a California school district partnered with a healthcare facility to provide children with gender transition hormones and surgeries without parental consent.”

According to them, “The school district, DJUSD and CommuniCare are providing these services under the guise of a ‘mental health program’ for K-12 students.”

According to CommuniCare’s website, the blog states, “they offer cross-sex hormone medications like testosterone, estradiol, and spironolactone, letters for medical clearance to undergo transition surgeries, and assistance with legal name and gender documents.”

The district took a few weeks before offering a high-level response: “Our job as educators is to ensure our school environment is safe and welcoming, and thus conducive to learning for all. We are committed to fostering schools where everyone feels accepted and knows they belong, especially those in groups that are targeted for hate and oppression. We stand in support of our students, staff, and community members of all genders.”

The district explained, “In addition to a welcoming school climate, the California Healthy Youth Act (Education Code, sections 51930-51939) requires that the District provide specific instruction to students. Specifically, California Education Code section 51930 b (2) states that we must ‘provide pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family.’”

In addition, they said, California Education Code section 51933 d(6) states that “instruction and materials shall teach pupils about gender, gender expression, gender identity, and explore the harm of negative gender stereotypes.”

“We believe that teaching this curriculum helps to foster schools where everyone feels accepted and knows they belong,” the District added.

A few weeks ago, we received a press release, again from a right-wing group, that a lawsuit was filed against Chico Unified School District claiming that the plaintiff’s daughter was 11 “when her public school transitioned her to a male identity behind her mother’s back.”

According to the blog, they claim “DJUSD will allow students as young as 12 years old to be treated by CommuniCare clinicians regarding their gender transition, and parents will not be notified unless the child consents!”

In a letter to the Enterprise dated January 17, the letter writer noted that “there is nothing hateful about saying it’s wrong to sterilize children and medicalize their bodies based on feelings. ​Feelings change with perspective and life experience.”

They explain: “We do not give dangerous cancer treatments without proof of a cancer diagnosis, so why are we giving cancer drugs to children who may be feeling uncomfortable with their growing and changing bodies? Why are we telling distressed children their perfectly healthy bodies might be ‘wrong’?”

They went onto argue that parents like her “have expressed concerns peacefully with compassion” but feel they have been labeled as “far right,” “fundamentally un-American” and claiming our comments have led to “threats of violence.”

The writer continues: “These statements are false, defamatory and a blatant attempt to silence diversity. We are parents, not domestic terrorists.”

This week, the Davis Schools Foundation in an op-ed this week warned that “our kids, our schools, and our community have recently come under assault. In recent weeks, Davis Parent University received hostile communications and felt pressured to cancel the latest installment of its lecture series.”

They explained, “The speaker, Rachel Pepper, is a therapist who wrote the book, The Transgender Child: A Handbook for Parents and Professionals to Support Transgender and Non-binary Kids.”

As the op-ed noted, trans and non-binary kids suffer from “higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidality than in the general population.”

The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found “that 45% of the nearly 35,000 surveyed LGBTQ youth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and non-binary youth.”

Moreover, “Seventy-five percent of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity at least once in their lifetime. Socially acceptable hate and discrimination harm the kids who are trans and non-binary and create inequitable outcomes.”

There seems to be a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding of what the schools can and cannot do. That is being fanned by ambitious politicians like DeSantis and other right-wing groups.

But make no mistake: the issues are complex.

A recent NY Times article noted “a dispute that illustrates how school districts, which have long been a battleground in cultural conflicts over gender and sexuality, are now facing wrenching new tensions over how to accommodate transgender children.”

One family interviewed noted that the parents “accepted their teenager’s new gender identity, but not without trepidation, especially after he asked for hormones and surgery to remove his breasts.”

The article noted, “Doctors had previously diagnosed him as being on the autism spectrum, as well as with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, PTSD and anxiety. He had struggled with loneliness during the pandemic, and, to his parents, seemed not to know exactly who he was yet, because he had repeatedly changed his name and sexual orientation.”

The mother said “she resented the fact that the school had made her feel like a bad parent for wondering whether educators had put her teenager, a minor, on a path the school wasn’t qualified to oversee.”

However, “The student, now 16, told The New York Times that his school had provided him with a space to be himself that he otherwise lacked. He had tried to come out to his parents before, he said, but they didn’t take it seriously, which is why he asked his school for support.”

As a parent of a trans kid, I know what the parents and students are going through.  The last thing we need to do is take a tough situation, and inject it with national and presidential politics.

As the Times points out, “Schools have pointed to research that shows that inclusive policies benefit all students, which is why some education experts advise schools to use students’s preferred names and pronouns.

“Educators have also said they feel bound by their own morality to affirm students’ gender identities, especially in cases where students don’t feel safe coming out at home.”

At the same time, “dozens of parents whose children have socially transitioned at school told The Times they felt villainized by educators who seemed to think that they — not the parents — knew what was best for their children.”

Further, “They insisted that educators should not intervene without notifying parents unless there is evidence of physical abuse at home. Although some didn’t want their children to transition at all, others said they were open to it, but felt schools forced the process to move too quickly, and that they couldn’t raise concerns without being cut out completely or having their home labeled ‘unsafe.’”

These are tough issues.  Simply labeling parents as anti-trans or transphobic is probably not a helpful response.  Then again, having right-wing blogs distort and blow up these issues is not helpful either.

There are reasonable concerns on both sides here, and we need to think about a way forward that can help students who are facing depression, suicidal ideations and trauma—and parents who are worried that schools are pushing their kids to make changes that cannot be easily reversed.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Dave Hart

    Thanks for shining some light on the local impact of the culture war against normal people by the white patriarchy (WP).  The problems faced by youth in our schools in coming to terms with their respective gender identity is just one more facet to the bigger, long term difficulty of not being heard or seen by those cocooned inside the WP.  Some of us are more resistant to fighting our way out of that bag, content to leave “well enough alone” and tell the victims of all manner of crimes that it’s really their own fault for not _________ ( fill in the blank).  The school age generation now coming up is far beyond what most of us can claim in our respective childhoods and early adulthoods.  I’m more hopeful than ever.

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