California Parents Protest Kindergarten Read-Aloud of Transgender Books

JazzA public charter school in Rocklin, California is defending a kindergarten teacher’s choice to read the picture books I Am Jazz and Red: A Crayon’s Story out loud to her students in order to help them understand a classmate’s gender transition. The charter district that includes Rocklin Academy Gateway has already reviewed its policies and decided that the teacher did nothing wrong, but the issue has caused a stir among parents on social media, with two families going so far as to pull their children from the school.

The charter district, officially known as the Rocklin Academy Family of Schools or RAFOS, currently has a lengthy Fact Sheet on Gender Identity that appears as a pop-up over its main website in an attempt to stem the flow of misinformation that has been circulating online about the case. Among other things, the fact sheet explains that gender identity and expression are not the same as sexual orientation; that parents were not notified of the student’s transition because she and her family have a right to privacy; and that RAFOS has a longstanding practice of “allow[ing] children to bring in books to classrooms to be read that are of interest to them or help classmates understand their heritage or culture,” as the transitioning student did with I Am Jazz.

According to RAFOS officials, the students themselves have been much more accepting of their classmate’s transition than have some of the parents. In fact, that acceptance seems to be precisely the problem for some adults, who express anxiety in this case and other similar cases that their own children will view gender transition or nonconformity as an option for themselves. Ideally, of course, those children too should be supported by their families, but experts like UC-Davis child psychiatrist Swati Rao point out that “hiding information about LGBT folks doesn’t make kids any less likely to figure out they are LGBT in the future.”

The Rocklin parents opposed to the two books have enlisted the aid of Karen England, who runs the conservative advocacy group Capitol Resource Institute and has an extensive history of opposing LGBTQIA-inclusive curricula. England’s attitude regarding the rights of minors in general is rather telling, as illustrated when she told the Sacramento Bee that “these children belong to the parents and not to the Rocklin Academy.”

The book controversy has now been addressed during at least two RAFOS board meetings and will again be on the agenda at the next meeting on September 18, although it’s not clear exactly what will be discussed since the district already reviewed its policies and decided that parental notification is not required when students discuss issues of gender identity.

This is not the first time that I Am Jazz, co-written by Jessica Herthel and actual transgender teen Jazz Jennings with illustrations by Shelagh McNicholas, has been at the center of a school controversy. Most recently, in December 2015 Wisconsin’s Mount Horeb Area School District cancelled a planned district-wide reading of the book under threat of a lawsuit from Liberty Counsel, which claimed that the reading would “miseducate children with what essentially amount to propaganda and mistruths.” Although the community came together in fine fashion and organized two extracurricular public readings of the book–one coordinated by a district parent and one by Mount Horeb High School’s Straight and Gay Alliance–the fact remains that a baseless threat was enough to intimidate a public institution out of sharing basic knowledge with students. The incident is all the more troubling because the reading was originally planned to support one student who was making her own gender transition at the time.

In March of this year, Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall was the book chosen by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to replaceJacob’s New Dress in a 1st grade anti-bullying curriculum, after the latter drew complaints from North Carolina state lawmakers. At the time, a former legislator said that some of his colleagues still in the statehouse were not “real thrilled with that book, either” and he expected Red to also receive “more scrutiny in the General Assembly because of this issue.”

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.