Currently, in California, it is illegal for a teacher to tell parents if their student uses different pronouns at school than they do at home.
However, if passed, the new Assembly Bill 1314 would reverse these laws and require teachers to notify parents that a student has transitioned at school within three days of finding out.
Students’ right to maintain their gender identity private is currently protected by Section 49060 of the California Education Code, which states that schools must keep the records of students, including transgender or gender nonconforming status, private. The California Constitution, which states that minors have a right to both autonomy and informational privacy, also protects this right.
The only exception to this law is that schools can share private information if students are at risk of self-harm or being harmed by other students. The Family Educational and Privacy Rights Act (FERPA) states that information can be disclosed “to appropriate parties in connection with an emergency if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals.”
At M-A, some teachers ask students which pronouns they’re comfortable with around different people to ensure they’re keeping students’ gender identities confidential. Gender Studies and AP US History teacher and Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) Adviser Anne Olson said, “At the beginning of the school year, I have students fill out a survey where I ask them to share their pronouns with me, and I ask very explicitly, ‘Can I use these just with you? Can I use these in front of other students? Can I use these in front of other teachers? Can I use these with parents or guardians or counselors?’ Before Back to School Night, I’m studying that list to make sure that I don’t blow it.”
However, many teachers don’t ask their students these questions at all, which makes it impossible for them to make sure that they don’t disclose a student’s gender identity to their parents without the student’s consent.
Olson said that during professional development days at the beginning of the year, GSA gives a presentation to teachers in which they discuss why teachers need to keep their students’ gender identities confidential. However, they don’t have enough time to talk about all the laws that require teachers to do so.
Olson said, “From a teacher’s perspective, there are so many rules and sometimes it’s really hard to understand all of them or to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in every way. At the beginning of the school year, when the GSA gives that presentation, teachers are paying attention, but they’re also like, ‘I have to make my syllabus and I have to make copies, and I need to learn my students’ names.’ So I think part of the problem is that we only have the conversation once a year and the beginning of the year is not the time to be like, ‘Know the laws and know the rights of your students.’”
Additionally, students who aren’t in GSA might not know about these rights because there aren’t any presentations or announcements at school for the general student body that cover them.
Some parents feel that they have a right to know if their child has transitioned at school. However, most transgender and gender nonconforming students think that protecting students’ privacy is more important.
Junior Luca Higgins said, “It’s up to someone to decide whether they are ready to tell people, that should be their decision.” He added, “I think it’s important because some people aren’t safe in their homes.”
An anonymous student agreed, saying, “I’ve never come out to my parents, but if I found out that I had been outed by a teacher, I’d feel kind of betrayed, and I’d be worried about how my parents would react, especially if they didn’t even hear it from me.”
“There are so many stats about how kids who have some sort of affirming space at school or at home are less likely to have symptoms of mental illnesses or to attempt suicide. In other states that are already less liberal than California, it’s even less likely that students have that support at home which makes feeling comfortable at school even more important,” said another anonymous student.
A third said, “This kind of privacy is a basic human right. It’s not a huge ask for students to feel like they can be themselves at school.”
Olson added, “It comes down to protecting the health and safety of students because that’s the most important work that we do as teachers. Yes, it honors that student’s confidentiality and honors their vulnerability; it honors that trust and rapport that you’ve built with the student, but at the end of the day, anything that we can do to protect the health and safety of our students needs to be a priority.”
Olson also argued that respecting students’ privacy helps build a better school environment. She explained, “By honoring somebody’s gender and honoring that they’ve come out at school, but not at home, that’s not just supporting that student and seeing them for who they are, but it’s also creating an environment where they can take academic risks and they can express themselves in a lot of different social and cultural ways that we hope students do at school. So it’s not just about gender, it’s about so many things. Everything is really, really connected.”
One of the GSA’s action items for the 2022-23 school year—which they will discuss with administrators after Day of Silence on March 31st—is to ensure that students are able to change their name on unofficial school records without permission from a parent or guardian. This will help maintain M-A students’ right to transition at school while also being able to decide when and to what extent they want to transition at home.