In education, Ron DeSantis and Chris Rufo are the boys who cry woke, the politician and polemicist currently getting the most public attention for hyping the 2020s version of the culture wars.1 Adam Laats is among the many historians who have provided important historical perspective in Made by History (Washington Post) and Slate, among other places. I’m a little less sanguine than Laats that this current culture war wildfire will burn itself out, and even if it does, it is currently harming individual children and chilling the professional judgment of educators — which is one of its primary goals. The cruelty and intimidation are the point.
My conclusion below is in the blog post’s title: right-wing culture warriors are simultaneously attacking transgender children and teachers, in the guise of parental rights. But let’s focus on the fundamental issue, as it was raised in Virginia in the past few years: what are teachers obliged to disclose to parents? In a blog post written in October 2022, after he accepted Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s appointment to the state board of education, Andy Rotherham provided a reasonably good-faith argument defending Youngkin’s version of guidance on transgender children, schools, and parents/guardians. In essence, he argues that it’s almost never a wise idea to keep information about children from their parents.2 He posts a straw-man argument: “many Democrats have decided that concealing things from parents or giving school personnel authority to act against parental wishes on gender questions is a hill to die on.” To me, Rotherham’s wording feels like political posturing, but okay, let’s go with the core question: when do educators need to keep from parents the information that children divulge to them?3
Imagine not gender identity but this scenario: a second-grader (and only child) approaches a teacher privately and says the following: “My mom told me today that she’s divorcing my dad, but she doesn’t want me to tell him because she’s keeping it a secret while she plans.” The teacher asks the student if they feel safe at home, and if the mom is safe, and it doesn’t seem to be a case of domestic violence or other issues a teacher is typically required to report to a child protection agency. But the student adds, “Please don’t tell my dad, and don’t tell my mom because she’d be mad if she knew I talked with you. But what do I do?” If you think that teachers are obligated to tell parents everything when a child’s safety isn’t at risk, please explain what you think the teacher should do in this case.
The plain fact is that teachers and other educators need some discretion to respond to students. There need to be guardrails — educators are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect for good reason — but the active policy question is where those guardrails are essential, not the fact that their placement is a matter of choice and deliberation.
Here, my thoughts run to practicality: educators should not obscure what is happening with a child when actions or words go beyond “I’m thinking this issue through, and need help.” If a child indicates they want to tell their family something and need help, then you help them with that communication (and connect the child with the counseling assistance required) and don’t try to persuade them that they’re wrong. Or if a child wants to tell other children, or wants something that other children will become aware of — such as being referred to by a different name and pronoun in a class — then it’s the educator’s role to explain that it’s not appropriate to ask other children to keep secrets from your parents or guardians, and why that’s what the child is asking. What’s more challenging are parameters of mental health counseling, but I don’t think gender identity issues are different from other issues with confidentiality that might arise when a child seeks counseling, whether or not that occurs in a school context.
But these don’t seem to me to require guardrails, and certainly not the ones now pushed by the Youngkin administration in Virginia, or similar ones elsewhere.
These issues are not new, nor are efforts to intimidate educators. I attended school in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Renee Richards became the first transgender professional athlete, and when Anita Bryant and others fought to remove LGBT teachers from Florida classrooms. As a preteen, I was vaguely aware of them through news, but discrimination was widespread and I grew up in one of the most conservative cities in Orange County, California. I did not know until years later which of my high school classmates were gay or lesbian, nor my teachers. My college classmates and other adult friends were far more open about sexual orientation, as were faculty in my 1980s liberal arts college, but not sexual identity: my friends who are transgender did not have the resources or freedom to transition until years later, generally in their 30s and 40s. Suffice it to say that I have both the personal memory and historical understanding of how quickly factional social movements can attack teachers, and also children.
And that is what we have now, in both what schools teach and how they treat children: a number of states where politicians in power think that their career interests align with the factional social movement that thinks they are the only parents whose voices matter, and that state authority should remove much of educator discretion. They are wrong, I hope they are soon defeated, but they are causing great harm where they are winning.
- Jamelle Bouie coined this great phrase last month, in connection with political posturing around the Silicon Valley Bank failure. [↩]
- For what it’s worth, I read both the prior and Youngkin guidance documents, and while the Northam administration document is a hot mess, the Youngkin replacement reads as a cold excuse for some school systems to do some real damage. [↩]
- Yes, a board of education is political, even when not explicitly partisan, but that’s a longer discussion–as are my thoughts about Rotherham’s votes on the state’s history standards. I’ll just say that like other members of the American Historical Association, I have been disappointed. [↩]