Around seven or eight years ago, I was sitting in the room in which the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee held its meetings, listening to public testimony about the process that allows school superintendents to grant a student a transfer from one district to another if both superintendents agree. The bill in question sought to broaden the rules to give the Commissioner of Education more influence since the superintendents were not approving any transfers under any circumstances.
A former teacher and Legislator rose to argue against the proposal by making one of the most remarkable statements I had ever heard in that room. “No one,” she said forcefully, “knows a student and what is in their best interests better than the local superintendent.”
In a room full of those who regularly monitored and participated in discussions of education policy in Augusta, I glanced quickly around to see if I was the only person who was flabbergasted by the statement. It seemed I was. So, I asked the committee clerk for a printed copy of the testimony because I could not believe I had heard it correctly. It turns out my hearing was fine and that I might be the only person in the room who felt that the people who best knew a given student and their needs were the parents.
I later learned that this legislator’s sentiment is surprisingly common among many in the community of Maine’s educational administrators. In the State House, there is a well-funded group that represents the interests of superintendents, another that represents the principals, and a third that represents the teachers. What is lacking—and it shows often in state law and policy—is a group that represents parents and students with equal rigor.
I have been reminded of this testimony more than once lately as I read again and again about various acts by school officials and teachers who have decided they are the better judge of what is in a student’s best interest than the parents and have even gone so far as to conspire to hide serious and even dangerous actions from the parents.
In Damariscotta, for example, a male school social worker aided a 13-year-old female student in beginning the transition to a male, even providing her with a breast binder so she could conceal the outward appearance of her gender. The social worker also conspired with the student to not make her parents aware of either her doubts about her gender or her physical efforts to conceal it.
One does not have to be an expert in clinical psychological to wonder if helping a troubled 13-year-old conceal their gender with a physical appliance only reinforces the shame she feels about her circumstances rather than efforts that might help her feel more comfortable with the person she is. When an adult provides a breast binder it tells the child, “You’re right. You should be ashamed, and I’ll help you hide it.” This is the farthest thing from the responsibility of school-based education.
This social worker chose to facilitate the student’s dramatic, life-changing act without knowledge of the student’s medical history including her mental health, whether she was the survivor of some damaging personal event as a younger child, or whether the advice he was giving the student might conflict in a dangerous way with her continuing care under a licensed psychiatrist outside of school.
When his case became public, school officials predictably employed the strategy of claiming that those who joined the outcry in this case did so only because they oppose the school district’s supportive and welcoming approach to transgender issues. In reality, however, the objection was to the meddling in the mental health of a 13-year-old child, something that should always be left to the family and not a provisionally certified school counselor who interacts with the child at most a few hours per week.
There are good reasons why decisions about a child’s medical treatment are often included in judges’ orders in divorce and custody cases. Courts recognize that this is an important and sensitive area as opposed to one that any school counselor can simply take upon themselves without the knowledge or consent of a parent.
Having learned of these actions by one of its employees, school officials have refused to terminate the offender, even though his actions violated at least two district policies. They have also refused to provide any details or reassurance to other parents or community members whose taxes and votes in school committee elections are the true authority in the district. In the same way that the counselor acted to conceal from the parents information they needed to raise the child properly, the school district seems intent on keeping important policy decisions hidden from those who are ultimately responsible for the education of local children.
After all, “No one knows a student and what is in their best interests better than the local superintendent” or local school counselor.
With annual assessments showing a decline in learning across grade levels and subjects, the statewide graduation rate at an 8-year low, and problematic drops in attendance, Maine schools have far more fundamental challenges to address than whether they must intercede in non-educational issues for parents whom they decide are incapable of adequately raising their own children.
As with local officials, the struggle to bypass parental authority and shape the opinions of young students to a certain point of view is also an issue at the Maine Department of Education (DOE).
In May of last year Maine DOE posted a video on its website instructing teachers how to teach kindergartners—6-year-olds—about sexual and gender identity without regard for whether the parents of these very young children feel the subject is wildly inappropriate for children that age. Let’s face it, kids that young have enough to sort out in a given day without having this very sensitive subject thrown at them. The video came to light in the midst of Governor Mills’ reelection campaign and was soon removed.
Rather than simply acknowledging the error and openly explaining how it came to be and why it was posted on the DOE website, the administration quietly removed the video. Among the concepts raised in it were “the doctors made a mistake about when they were born,” in designating the child as male or female, and “when a baby is born, the doctors will tell the parents what gender they think that baby is.”
Does this video, funded by DOE and posted on its website as a teaching and learning example, represent the policies and values of the Mills administration? If not, how did it become part of the DOE website and have those involved in producing and posting this video been made aware that they have acted outside of state standards so they will not make such a mistake again? The public, including parents who have a right and often a strong desire to know, have not received answers to such questions because neither the Governor nor DOE have offered any. And why would they? “No one knows a student and what is in their best interests better than the local superintendent,” or state education official.
These and many other cases of a similar nature are being reported across the state as schools struggle with a rapidly emerging and long overdue cultural shift toward tolerance and support.
Make no mistake, the horrible treatment that people with gender dysphoria—especially children—face in our society today is abhorrent and devastating. We should do all we can to support those who struggle with this and other identity issues and work to purge discrimination and bullying in our schools and elsewhere. However, school employees are wrong to co-opt the legal rights of parents to the exclusive control over their children’s medical care, including psychological aspects. Most school counselors, among others, are not qualified medical providers and cannot judge what is best for individual students in these struggles.
No matter how well-meaning, conspiring with a young child who has yet to reach the age of consent and intentionally excluding the parents from the process is wrong on a number of levels and could cause lasting harm to the student. At the same time, it is becoming more common. A recent Portland Press Herald article described the results of numerous interviews with school officials on the subject and reported that “many said they thought it was important for students to be able to use their chosen identities and be themselves in school without fear of being ‘outed’ to their parents before they are ready to talk about their gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Again, “No one knows a student and what is in their best interests better than the local superintendent” or school official. This, “We are smarter and more enlightened than parents, so we have the right to meddle in a child’s health care,” is anathema to the basic concepts of parental rights and school responsibilities.
Maine has long prided itself on the principle of “local control” when it comes to education. Decisions about local education, the principle goes, should be left to the people closest to the students and the community. The problem lies when school leaders believe that the concept of what is local stops at the principal’s office, rather than continuing on to the ultimate local authority—the parents. If the state should butt out because it is too far removed from the needs of a given child, then by that same principle, in individual cases, a superintendent should yield to the authority of the parents who are far closer to the needs of the child than anyone else.
Maine should do all it can to ease the suffering of young people who are experiencing gender dysphoria, including and perhaps especially in our schools. However, when that effort subverts the authority of a parent over the care of their child, something has gone terribly wrong.