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Psychology Today: The Problems with Parental Notifications and "Opt-Outs"

There is a controversy happening in my local school district where the superintendent has emailed all teachers a directive that they have to give one week’s notice to parents (via email) anytime they plan a lesson that will address "gender identity." In my view, there are multiple problems with requiring parental notice that then allows families to opt their children out of such lessons.

1. Lessons on gender identity are often designed to ensure students understand the problems with gender stereotypes and are given the language to understand that there are people who identify as transgender and nonbinary. The goal is to help everyone develop respectful vocabulary and inclusive practices that acknowledge the true diversity that exists in our community and our nation. When you allow folks to opt out you are agreeing that this isn’t essential information for everyone and that schools can let parents cherry-pick which parts of the curriculum they agree with.

2. Oftentimes these lessons are introduced to reduce bullying and harassment based on gender. This is important as research has demonstrated a strong link between bullying in elementary school, homophobic harassment in middle school, and dating violence in high school. Bullying prevention programs that don’t explicitly talk about gender are less effective. Students who are pulled out of such lessons are often the ones who need them the most. (See studies by Dr. Dorothy Espelage)

3. Several lawsuits have found schools responsible for failing to protect students from homophobic and sexual harassment. Schools are expected to  ‘eliminate the hostile environment and its effects and prevent the harassment from recurring’. Title IX guidance on bullying and harassment issued in 2010 says that individual punishments may be necessary but are often insufficient to address the harms of the negative environment and call on schools to do everything in their power to eradicate the harmful effects of bullying. This includes universal education and prevention efforts which are undermined when students are allowed to opt out.

4. The families in this case (and others like it) argue that these lessons are a violation of their religious values. The First Amendment requires that public schools may not promote or inhibit the practice of a particular religion. These lessons do neither and religious values do not get to dictate public school policy and practice. Public schools are a public good and must do their best to serve the needs of ALL kids and families while upholding relevant federal laws such as the First Amendment and Title IX.

5. There is extensive evidence about the harms that LGBTQ youth experience in schools. Transgender and nonbinary youth experience harm at much higher rates than cisgender youth. The statistics about dropping out, homelessness, self-harm, and violence targeted towards this group are staggering and available in various reports including from organizations such as GLSEN and NCTE. Schools that try to change this culture must do so by carefully and intentionally designing lessons for the whole school community about gender identity and sexual orientation. LGBTQ students report feeling safer and experience better outcomes (graduation rates, GPA’s, continue on to college, report sense of belonging) in such schools.

By requiring advance notification so parents can opt their kids out of certain lessons and school activities, it sends the message that their concerns have legitimacy and allows them undue influence over the curriculum in their schools. Requiring teachers to do advance notification adds an administrative burden that creates a chilling effect and adds a layer of scrutiny to their lesson plans. As a result, many teachers may be less likely to plan and include these important lessons in their classrooms. It acts almost like the "gag order" imposed in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota that prevented teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics in their schools. This policy was linked to a spike in youth suicides and a lawsuit that led to an extensive settlement agreement requiring the district to engage in more extensive LGBTQ-education and support efforts in their schools. They are now subject to a new lawsuit regarding discrimination against a transgender student.

My school district has partnered with a local team of experts (A Queer Endeavor) that are recognized for their important and research-informed professional development on gender and sexual diversity in schools. The work they do has been recognized as ground-breaking and life-saving and has the respect of many leading scholars and educators in our professional association (American Educational Research Association). District leaders need to have the courage of their convictions to stand up to this small faction of parents and support the choices and policies they have made to ensure their schools are as welcoming and supportive of the diverse students and families in their district. I am speaking out at the school board meeting tonight, and I hope the information I share here is a helpful resource for other folks facing similar challenges in their communities. Allowing families to opt out lessons designed to build understanding, awareness, and appreciation for diversity is bad for the community and hurts kids. Period.

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Elizabeth J. Meyer

Elizabeth J. Meyer is an Associate Professor in Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice in the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. She...