BY KAREN OCAMB | LGBT education and legislative activists have been trying to get the attention of California’s education administrators since science teacher Dr. Virginia Uribe created a school dropout prevention program for LGBT students at Fairfax High School in 1984. This year, 32 years later, three LGBT youth-related bills passed the Legislature and are now sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting his signature: one would regulate the abusive but lucrative “troubled teen” industry; another would require private religious colleges that take tax dollars to publicly state that they discriminate against LGBT students and employees for religious reasons; and the third would require the Department of Education to create and provide a model comprehensive suicide prevention plan to be adopted by local school districts.
These three bills were created because of a need and specific situations brought to the attention of their authors: SB 524—the “Protecting Youth from Institutional Abuse Act”—was brought to Sen. Ricardo Lara by the Los Angeles LGBT Center and Survivors of Institutional Abuse (SIA); Lara also authored SB 1146—“Uncovering Discrimination in Higher Education”—sponsored by Equality California after complaints from LGBT students; and AB 2246—“Suicide Prevention Policies in Schools”—authored by former Long Beach teacher Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell with Equality California and The Trevor Project after new studies show that LGBT suicide rates continue to be high.
No one knows whether Brown will sign or veto the bills. But the real question is why—after three decades of fighting for compassion and equal treatment in the state’s school system—must these conditions still need a remedy? In 1984, openly lesbian Dr. Uribe worked with then-closeted Jackie Goldberg, president of the Los Angeles Unified School District, to fight rabidly anti-gay Traditional Values Coalition head Rev. Lou Sheldon to make sex education and condoms available in the schools during the AIDS crisis. In the early 1990s, out Sheila Kuehl brought the issue of discrimination and bullying against LGBT youth to the Assembly floor with her “Dignity For All Students” bill. Later, out Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s “School Success and Opportunity Act” ensured that transgender students have access to all school programs and facilities—a law that sent the religious right screaming about the scary “bathroom bill.”
But none of those three decades of laws and attempts to instill LGBT cultural competency in America’s most progressive state seem to have penetrated the thick bureaucratic thinking of the California State Board of Education, which is meeting Thursday to “adopt key elements of a new and distinct school accountability system,” according to education watchdog EdSource.
“The new system shifts from a one-dimensional school rating under the API and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, based on test scores, toward a broader picture of what constitutes a quality education. It combines measures of underlying conditions, such as teacher qualifications and student suspension rates, and academic outcomes, including gauges of college and career readiness and standardized test scores,” reports EdSource.
Including the issue of student suspension indicates at least some cultural competency. A federal report last year showed that African American students are four times more likely than whites to be arrested in or suspended or expelled from school, mostly in the South. However, the rates in California for students being suspended for “willful defiance” apparently declined for three years, according to a 2015 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project.
“Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonprofit policy group, said blacks are more likely to be suspended or expelled in situations where teachers or school leaders have discretion in determining how to respond to behavior, such as when a student is deemed disrespectful or defiant or violates a dress code,” the New York Times reported.
African American parents have long decried the “school-to-prison pipeline” for unfair school suspensions that can start as early as preschool.
But LGBT youth of all races and ethnicities are subject to acting out and suffering the consequences of “willful defiance.” And for LGBT youth who are unruly and perhaps non-gender conforming, the penalties can far exceed the “crime”—they can be sent to a rehabilitation facility where they may be forced to endure starvation, physical, mental and emotional abuse and maybe even lose their lives. (See my investigative report here)
“We’re so close to finally regulating an industry rife with institutions that masquerade as residential schools, camps, and wilderness programs to help troubled youth, but frequently abuse and even kill the kids they claim to ‘treat,’” said the Center’s Director of Policy & Community Building Dave Garcia after SB 524 passed. “For all youth, and particularly for the well-being of LGBT youth whose parents are frequently conned into sending their kids to these programs simply because they’re LGBT, we implore Governor Brown to quickly sign the Protecting Youth from Institutional Abuse Act.”
The Center urges everyone to sign a petition to Gov. Brown urging him to sign the “Protecting Youth from Institutional Abuse Act”- click here.
But the EdSource report on Thursday’s California State Board of Education meeting —ironically during Suicide Prevention Week—makes no mention of the need to consider or develop protocols for compassionate treatment for troubled LGBT youth in schools. Nor is there mention of the need to adopt more comprehensive suicide prevention policies, despite the CDC noting last month that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among all young people aged 10-24; specifically, “more than 40 percent of LGB students have seriously considered suicide, and 29 percent reported having attempted suicide during the past 12 months.” Suicide consideration and attempts are even greater among transgender youth.
“As educators, our most important duty is the protection of the children in our care,” says Tom Torlakson, California Superintendent of Public Instruction, at the top of the Department of Education’s webpage on Child Abuse Prevention—a webpage that provides an online “Educators Training Module” explaining the legal responsibilities of mandated reporting and suggests behavioral red flags such as anxiety, depression, self-mutilation, and “suicidal gestures/attempts.”
Torlakson and the California State Board of Education seem unaware of this unfilled need http://www.eqca.org/ocamb-16/—and the fact that a model policy (called for by AB 2246) already exists, created by experts The Trevor Project, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists. The 16-page “Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention: Model Language, Commentary, and Resources,” describes risk factors, protective factors, prevention, best practices, referrals and more.
And then there’s the Education Department and the School Board’s turning a blind eye towards the plight of students or employees who come out while at a religious school they did not realize would discriminate against them for who they are. Lara’s bill—vociferously opposed by longtime anti-LGBT religious activists—calls for simple transparency. “With SB1146, we shed light on the appalling discriminatory practices LGBT students face at private religious universities in California,” Lara said in an email. “No university should have a license to discriminate, especially those receiving state funds. That’s why I will update my bill to ensure that Title 9 universities disclose their exempt status publicly and require that universities notify the California Student Aid Commission if a student has been expelled due to their moral conduct clauses. As a gay Catholic man, nobody can dictate how I worship or practice my religion. These provisions represent critical first steps in the ongoing efforts to protect students from discrimination for living their truths or loving openly.”
But none of these issues appear to be on the agenda forThursday’s meeting of the California State Board of Education, which is meeting to revise their accountability process. After three decades of trying to achieve equal and compassionate treatment from those responsible for forming and enforcing fair school policy, when will state officials go beyond nice-sounding rhetoric and actually be accountable to LGBT students and employees?