Murrieta Valley board defies California, will keep policy to tell parents about LGBTQ+ transitioning

MURRIETA, CA - AUGUST 10, 2023: Attendees in support of the parental notification policy hold up signs stating "Protect Family Values" during a school board meeting which decided 3-2 to enact a policy which would notify parents if any child identifies as transgender on August 10, 2023 in Murrieta, CA. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
People at a Murrieta Valley school board meeting in August cheer after the board voted 3 to 2 to approve a parent-notification policy on student gender identification. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Murrieta Valley Board of Education has defied a state order — and countermanded its own staff — by reaffirming a policy that requires parents to be notified when students change their gender identity on campus, putting the district at the center of a raging culture-war battle over how best to protect the interests of both students and parents.

The board voted 3 to 2 on Thursday night to keep its parent-notification policy, which requires administrators, teachers and counselors to notify parents or guardians in writing within three days after any district employee has learned that a student is requesting to be "identified or treated as a gender other than the student’s biological sex or gender listed on the student’s birth certificate or any other official records."

An investigation by the California Department of Education concluded that the notification rules were discriminatory and therefore illegal. Its April 10 report ordered the Riverside County school system of 22,000 students to rescind the policy. The school board's defiant reaction signals that conservative local officials are willing to challenge the state's interpretation of the law as well as the state's overall authority to intervene in local matters of this sort.

"We have a right as a board to defy a dictatorial governor and bureaucracy — or whatever — that tries to take away our rights as parents and as citizens — as a duly elected board," said board member Nick Pardue. "We have legal standing and we should absolutely stand up for our rights against dictators."

The Department of Education had no immediate response Friday.

A clear majority of more than 100 parents, community members and activists who packed the board room applauded. They cheered again when board President Paul Diffley, without comment, hesitated, then broke a 2-2 tie.

In a later interview, Diffley said he hesitated only because he was recalling public comments at an earlier meeting from a young adult who'd had gender reassignment surgery and then regretted it.

"A parent has the right till a child is 18 to know everything that is critical," he added.

The vast majority of speakers supported the parent-notification policy, including Wes Schaeffer, a local father of seven who held his first baby grandchild as he challenged the idea that teachers should be tasked with keeping a secret.

"I think maybe the government is overstepping its boundaries," he added.

Speakers against the policy included the board's student member, Isabella Dadalt.

Cheers from the audience over the announcement of Dadalt's acceptance to UCLA became uncomfortable silence and murmurs as Dadalt began a long list of her reasons for opposing the policy.

"I do not believe that their students would ever withhold information from their parents unless they were genuinely forced to," she said. "So if you're a parent, and you feel threatened by the fact that your student is going to a teacher instead of you, I think you need to rethink your parenting."

Parent-notification policies that target gender identity have spread to a relatively small number of the state's 1,000 school systems — most commonly in inland, rural or strongly conservative enclaves.

Supporters believe parents have a fundamental right to be involved in all aspects of their children’s lives, especially on matters as consequential as gender identification. And they assert that state and federal law gives local school boards the latitude they need to approve such policies — and parents the right to demand them.

Opponents say parental-notification policies are being used to violate student privacy and civil rights enshrined in state law and the education code — and that the near-universal outing of transgender students to parents would put some children at serious risk. They say that transgender and other nonconforming students are being singled out as convenient targets for political gain.

This issue is playing out in litigation up and down California.

In this instance, on April 10, the state Department of Education ordered the Murrieta district, within five days, to provide written notice to all employees and students that the notification policy is "inconsistent" with state education code and will "not be implemented."

Two days later, in an effort to follow those instructions, the district administration sent out an unsigned notice, from the "Murrieta Valley USD Administrative Team," that appears to comply with the state directive.

In deference to the state order, district administrators had placed on Thursday's agenda an action to rescind the parent-notification policy entirely, while leaving open the door to revisit the issue later.

By that point, however, the board majority had run out of patience with its own staff as well as the state — especially after listening to a procession of parents expressing outrage that the policy, approved in August, had yet to go into effect. They had learned of the delay only when the district sent out its notice about ending the policy.

Board member Julie Vandegrift proposed an amendment that affirmed the policy and called for it to take effect as soon as possible. And that was the version that passed.

Board members Linda Lunn and Nancy Young voted no.

In a later interview, Lunn said the effort to create and defend a divisive policy — in a district that already carefully protects the interests of parents and students — continues to consume district time and resources.

“This is weaponizing Murrieta Valley Unified to play politics with Sacramento, and they’re using taxpayer money to do it,” Lunn said.

"I believe in following the law and the Education Code," Young said. "They don't all seem to understand that [the Education] Code is the law."

The state investigation was prompted when two teachers filed a complaint. While the state has kept their identities confidential, both have come forward publicly. One of the instructors, Karen Poznanski, who teaches sixth- and seventh-graders at Dorothy McElhinney Middle School, is also a district parent with a child who is nonbinary.

"This policy, whether enforced or not, hindered our LGBTQ+ students from living authentically," Poznanski said in an email. "Moreover, it not only compromised their privacy and dignity, but also perpetuated harm and discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals and their families. ... This is discrimination and an abuse of power in its most blatant form."

Board member Pardue, a history teacher in another school system, cited state and constitutional provisions as supporting the board's action.

State Atty. General Rob Bonta strongly disagrees and has sued Chino Valley Unified, one of several districts that approved a version of parent notification that shared a common template. The matter is the subject of several ongoing lawsuits.

Pardue noted a preliminary ruling has allowed the policy to remain in force in nearby Temecula Valley Unified School District.

A different judge reached a different conclusion with Chino Valley Unified, with a preliminary ruling that the parent-notification policy was discriminatory and, therefore, illegal. The analysis by the California Department of Education, or CDE, as laid out in its report to the Murrieta district, aligns closely with that of the judge in the Chino Valley case.

"The CDE finds the District’s policy ... on its face singles out and is directed exclusively toward one group of students based on that group’s legally protected characteristics of identifying with or expressing a gender other than that identified at birth," the state letter says. "And the application of that policy adversely impacts those students." Moreover, the Murrieta policy "does not expressly or implicitly provide any educational or school administrative purpose justifying ... discrimination."

The report says that districts that fail to comply can face a court order and could ultimately lose funding.

The Chino Valley school system recently revised its policy in hopes that it will survive legal challenges while still accomplishing the original intent.

Chino Valley school board President Sonja Shaw said parents in Murrieta and Chino Valley have expressed frustration over the state's position and urged her to press on.

"We will continue to stand strong, linked arms all over California, to ensure the government does not infringe on parental rights — period," Shaw said.

For those opposing the policy, the success of the teachers' complaint with state officials could suggest a roadmap for elsewhere, said Amanda Mangaser Savage, who is representing teachers and parents trying to overturn the Temecula policy they define as forced outing.

"What we're likely to see," Mangaser Savage said, "is other educators submitting CDE complaints, which CDE would then handle similarly."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.