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The Latest Target for California Conservatives? Local School Boards

Bill Essayli had no chance of getting one of his first bills through the California State Assembly.

Mr. Essayli, a freshman Republican lawmaker, wanted parents to be notified if their child asked to change gender identities at school. His bill drew attention, but died without a hearing in a State Legislature run by a Democratic supermajority.

So, Mr. Essayli and his conservative allies tried a different venue: local school boards.

In July, the board overseeing the Chino Valley Unified School District, which serves a diverse, middle-class area about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, adopted a version of Mr. Essayli’s proposal. At least six other districts around the state have followed suit.

“We sort of shifted and said, ‘Well, they’re not going to let us hear it in Sacramento, but we believe this is a good policy,’” said Mr. Essayli, who represents an area of the Inland Empire near Chino. “And so we’re going to move forward with a school district policy.”

Hundreds showed up at an October meeting of the Capistrano Unified School District board, which debated a parental notification policy.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Republicans have almost no power in California’s state government or its largest cities, but they have found traction in a handful of suburbs where parental frustrations have percolated since the pandemic.

In several school board meetings around the state, the same debate has played out over the past few months. Some parents insist that they have a right to know everything about their child’s school experience, from the materials being studied to the bathroom being used. They have been joined by political activists and, in many instances, Mr. Essayli.

Other parents have forcefully objected, arguing that the real motivation behind the policy is to strike fear in transgender children and prevent them from revealing their true selves at school or at home. Some have said the notification policy would amount to a forced outing that could endanger children whose parents reject their L.G.B.T.Q. identities.

“We think our school boards should be focused on things that matter to all students and public education,” said Kristi Hirst, a Chino Valley parent who is an organizer in a growing countermovement. “Our schools are being derailed right now.”

Bill Essayli, a Republican state assemblyman, celebrated with a supporter after he spoke in favor of a parental notification policy at the Capistrano Unified School District board meeting.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

In July, the Chino Valley Unified meeting where the school board approved the parental notification policy was a raucous event; each side had hundreds of people. The school district of 27,000 students has been a political battleground for years, its board majority shifting between conservatives with close ties to a local megachurch and moderate, secular-minded representatives. Chino Valley Unified was previously engaged in a yearslong legal dispute over the use of prayer and Bible readings during board meetings.

Last year, conservatives took control when Sonja Shaw, an outspoken Republican who works as a personal fitness instructor and runs a local Bible study group, was elected along with another right-leaning candidate.

Ms. Shaw spearheaded the parental notification policy and ran the board meeting as president. It was a pivotal enough debate that Tony Thurmond, the state schools chief and a Democrat who recently announced he was running for governor, made a rare appearance.

As he made his case, asserting that L.G.B.T.Q. children were at risk, his microphone was cut. Ms. Shaw scolded Mr. Thurmond for trying to speak beyond his allotted minute of time.

“I appreciate you being here tremendously, but here’s the problem,” she said, her voice rising. “You’re in Sacramento proposing things that pervert children!”

Mr. Thurmond could not respond before he was escorted out by a scrum of security guards. Ms. Shaw reminded him that he was in Chino, not at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

Sonja Shaw, the president of the Chino Valley Unified school board, has spearheaded the parental notification policy in the district.Credit…Anjali Sharif-Paul/The Orange County Register, via Associated Press

Lawmakers in states like Florida and Texas invoked parents’ rights as they enacted book bans, as well as dozens of laws restricting the school bathrooms transgender students can use and whether L.G.B.T.Q. history can be discussed in classrooms.

But states run by Democrats have rebuffed such efforts. Instead, California lawmakers this year passed a raft of measures designed to protect L.G.B.T.Q. residents, including guaranteed access to all-gender bathrooms on school campuses.

To Ms. Hirst, the fight over the notification policy has needlessly drawn the Chino Valley district into another culture war. Ms. Hirst has been involved in Chino Valley schools since her childhood, as a student, educator and now a parent of three children in the district.

She helped start Our Schools USA, which has tried to counter the conservative movement at the school board level. The group’s co-founder is Christina Gagnier, who was president of the Chino Valley Unified school board until she was ousted by Ms. Shaw.

Ms. Hirst said the district should focus instead on attracting qualified teachers in the midst of a shortage, and ensuring that students have access to the courses they need to get into college. It’s work that, when done properly, should be “boring,” she said.

“These culture war candidates are singularly focused with tunnel vision,” Ms. Hirst said. “Their only focus is their political and religious issues.”

Parents, community members and students lined up to speak at the board meeting in San Juan Capistrano.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Rob Bonta, the state attorney general and a potential Democratic candidate for governor, sued the Chino Valley school district over its notification policy in August, arguing that the district had discriminated against L.G.B.T.Q. students and violated their privacy rights.

Republicans seemed to welcome the challenge. They see legal disputes as an opportunity to plead their case to judges they believe are more sympathetic than California’s legislators — especially judges at the federal level.

“We would like it to go to the Supreme Court,” Mr. Essayli said. “It is a fight we want.”

Before a judge sided with Mr. Bonta and temporarily blocked the policy, the Chino Valley district had notified 15 families that their children had requested a different gender identity at school, Ms. Shaw said.

This month, a different San Bernardino Superior Court judge again temporarily blocked two of the policy’s provisions that required the district to inform parents if their child asked to be identified by a gender that didn’t align with the sex on their birth certificate. But he allowed the district to notify parents if children ask to change their school records.

The current legal dispute is not the test case that conservatives might have wished for, because it is a matter of state, not federal, law. But one of the California notification policies may eventually be contested in a federal venue, said Erwin Chemerinsky, an expert in constitutional law and the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Mr. Chemerinsky said the Supreme Court has previously struck compromises on the fundamental tension at play, between a minor’s constitutional right to privacy and parents’ constitutional right to decide how to raise their child. But, in his view, asking to be treated as a different gender doesn’t directly involve physical safety, while sharing that information without a child’s consent could put the child at risk.

“There’s no doubt this is a conservative court,” Mr. Chemerinsky said. “On the other hand, I think on the legal merits, a child’s privacy interests seem to be much more compelling than the parents’ right to know.”

Some conservative school boards are facing local pushback. In Orange County, voters are likely to qualify a recall election of two Orange Unified School District trustees after their board removed the superintendent with little warning, banned the Pride flag and passed a parental notification requirement, among other actions.

An overflow crowd gathered outside the Capistrano Unified School District building during the meeting.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

At the Capistrano Unified School District, which more than 49,000 students and is the largest district in Orange County, trustees considered a broader parental notification policy this month.

Hundreds showed up, and the crowd divided neatly: Parents, community members and traveling right-wing activists dressed in white, holding signs on a balmy evening that read, “Parents are not the enemy.” In purple were district students, alumni, parents and educators waving Pride flags. One student wore a T-shirt that said, “Jesus wore a dress.”

Dozens of students, including many who are transgender, lined up to speak.

“I’m a senior in high school; I should be worried about keeping my grades up and getting my college applications in on time, but I’m not,” said Nox Lane, 17, a student at a high school in the district who described their gender identity as nonbinary. “In fact, all of that seems rather small to me when I see my community and my identity come under attack.”

Mr. Essayli also appeared at the meeting almost 50 miles from his district, where he argued that parents should know and control everything about how their children are educated. “I think it is completely disrespectful that you took a whole hour to listen from children,” he added.

At the end of the night, the board voted 5-2 to reject the policy.

Sergio Olmos contributed reporting from Chino, Calif.

Opponents of the parental notification policy celebrated after the school board rejected it, while supporters, dressed in white, looked on.Credit…Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

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