A small California school district is being sued by a mother who says teachers secretly forced her 11-year-old daughter to change her gender identity and name.
A conservative legal group filed a claim against Spreckels Union School District on Wednesday. The lawsuit says that the district was responsible for “extreme and outrageous behavior” that put the student on the path to becoming a boy and drove a wedge between the mother and child.
Jessica Konen said that two middle school teachers who ran the school’s Equality Club, later renamed UBU (You Be You), told her daughter in sixth grade that she was bis*xual and then said to her that she was transgender.
The legal claim is the first step toward a lawsuit. It comes after a big fuss in the district last fall when two teachers were quoted in a book widely criticized as being “anti-transgender.” The book was about how to run an LGBTQ+ club in a conservative community.
Spreckels is a small farming town in the Salinas Valley, about 90 miles (144 km) south of San Francisco. It was once home to the world’s biggest sugar refinery, and some scenes from the 1955 movie “East of Eden” were filmed there.
Even though Konen said her daughter had told her she was bis*xual, the mother didn’t know she was identifying as a boy until she was called to a meeting at the Buena Vista Middle School principal’s office in December 2019 when her daughter was in the 7th grade.
She didn’t know why she was there until her daughter walked in and sat across from her. Then, teacher Lori Caldeira told her. “I literally was caught off guard. I was blindsided,” Konen said. “I didn’t even know what to feel like because I didn’t even know where it came from.”
Konen said that she started crying. She said that even her daughter was caught off guard. She had told her teachers that she wanted to tell her mom about the meeting, but she didn’t know they had set it up for that day.
Konen said that she let the school use a boy’s name for attendance purposes and tried to be helpful, but it was hard. When schools switched to remote learning in March 2020 because of the pandemic, Konen said her daughter started acting like her “old self” again and now goes by her given name.
But it wasn’t until the article by Abigail Shrier went around town this fall that Konen started to wonder how her daughter got on the path to a different identity.
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In a recording of a California Teachers Association conference that got out, Caldeira and Kelly Baraki are heard talking about how they kept meetings secret and “stalked” students online to find new members.
“When we were doing our virtual learning — we stalked what they were doing on Google when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’ll invite that kid when we get back on campus.”
The Associated Press tried to talk to Caldeira and Baraki, but they couldn’t be reached. Caldeira told the San Francisco Chronicle that the quotes were correct, taken out of context, or misrepresented. She said that the comment about stalking was a joke.
Caldeira, recognized as a role model for inclusion, defended their work by saying that the students set the agenda and that the teachers were there to answer their questions honestly and fairly.
In November, the teachers were put on leave by the school. They went to the conference on their own time, but the district said that “many of the comments and themes stated in the article are alarming, concerning, disappointing” and didn’t reflect their policies.
The district hired a law firm to look into it, and the investigation is still ongoing. The UBU club was also put on hold. When Konen criticized the school board at a meeting in December, saying that the teachers took away her ability to be a parent, people cheered.
Superintendent Eric Tarallo said that the legal claim would be dealt with by the court system and that he couldn’t know if the teachers were back at school because of personnel rules. He said that the district was looking at its policies on student clubs and making changes.
The California Teachers Association said that the conference was one of many each year that help teachers understand how important it is to protect students from discrimination, including based on s*xual orientation and gender identity or expression.
It said that the group that filed the lawsuit was using it to get money for its cause, which was terrible.
“We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators, and school communities for their political gain, which is evident in this complaint,” spokeswoman Lisa Gardiner said.
“The Center for American Liberty is concerned with pushing its political agenda through litigation and has filed multiple lawsuits against various school districts and communities.”
One of Konen’s biggest complaints was that the school didn’t tell her about her daughter’s involvement in the club, the literature classes, and the “gender support plan” made by the school’s administrators.
She said that her daughter was even instructed to make a binder to keep her from getting breasts. “Parents are supposed to have access to all the educational records of their children,” said the lawyer who filed the case, Harmeet Dhillon.
“The concept that the schools have a right to be running secret, don’t-tell-your-parents clubs and don’t-tell-your-parents programs and actively coaching children how to mutilate themselves, which is, you know, not growing your breasts, is certainly not consistent with California law.”
On the other hand, the American Civil Liberties Union says that state and federal laws give students privacy rights that cover their s**ual orientation and gender identity. A school can tell a parent about their child’s s*xuality against their wishes only in certain situations.
“Outside of school, these students may similarly face potential hostility at home because of who they are,” said Peter Renn, an attorney with Lambda Legal. “For example, involuntarily outing a student as LGBTQ to their parents can very well lead to them getting kicked out of the home in some circumstances.”
Konen said that her daughter is now in high school and doing well. “She still deals with confusion,” Konen said. “She feels like she can breathe, you know, like she doesn’t have pressure on her.”
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