//“Ghost in the System:” Clovis Unified’s Quiet Assault on Trans Students

“Ghost in the System:” Clovis Unified’s Quiet Assault on Trans Students

By Ramie Thomas | info@fresnoflyer.com

In a crowded room on a Wednesday evening, dozens of people gathered for a local school board meeting. The atmosphere is tense, but it is not the number of people filling the room that stifles the air. Nor is it because Proud Boys crowd the entrance or that they yell homophobic slurs at attendees or accuse them of being “groomers.” The tension arises from the gravity of the discussion about to take place, and the recognition of the harm that will result from a policy quietly enacted amidst a storm of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric across the country. It is the reality that the lives of transgender youth are at stake.  

This was the setting of the school board meeting at Clovis Unified School District (CUSD) on September 20. Over approximately four hours, over 80 speakers, including parents, students, CUSD teachers, local faith leaders, community members, and advocates stood at the podium. They appealed to the school board about so-called “parental notification” policies.

Generally, the policies work like this: when a transgender student wishes to be referred to by their chosen name or pronouns or wishes to use a restroom or play on a sports team that aligns with their gender identity, the school must notify their parents – regardless of whether the student wants them to or not. 

If the term “parental notification policy” sounds innocuous, it’s probably because school districts enacting them have realized that “forced outing policy” is bad for optics. And school districts across California have recently started enacting these policies, which specifically target transgender youth. The result is clear – the student is forcefully outed to their parents, even if their home environment is not safe or supportive. This is the exact policy passed in July by Chino Valley Unified School District (CVUSD), which sparked the current legal challenge by California Attorney General Rob Bonta.

Other California school districts have followed suit. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Murrieta Valley Unified School District passed its policy in August, using the CVUSD policy as an example. As reported by The Press-Enterprise, Temecula Valley Unified School District also passed its version in August. And in early September, the LA Times also reported that the Orange Unified School District adopted its policy.

But if there was a race to see which California school district would enact the policy first, CUSD has lapped the inland empire by at least four months. Drew Harbaugh (he/him), Chapter President of PFLAG Fresno, says the school district has had a protocol in place since March. PFLAG is the nation’s largest and longest-running organization dedicated to supporting, educating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ people and those who love them. 

According to Harbaugh, CUSD’s protocol flew under the radar until shortly before the September 20 school board meeting. Following a previous school board meeting on September 6, where individuals pushed for adopting a forced outing policy, LGBTQ+ advocates like PFLAG Fresno prepared to speak at the September 20 meeting in opposition. However, Harbaugh and other advocates soon realized they were not going to be speaking out against the enactment of the policy but against its enforcement.

PFLAG Fresno learned of the protocol from parents and staff within Clovis Unified concerned for transgender students. “We found out that the [forced outing] protocol was already in place,” Harbaugh explained. “Clovis Unified had quietly replaced its GAP plan – which was gender affirming for students – and the individuals who contacted us recognized the harm that the protocol would have on students from being forcefully outed. Parents spoke about meetings where kids would have been outed had the students not been out already.”

CUSD calls its protocol the “Student Site Plan,” or SSP. According to Harbaugh, the SSP was unilaterally enacted by CUSD in March: “The policy was enacted without public input, without an open session of the school board.” 

CUSD has not made the SSP publicly available, but PFLAG Fresno has made efforts to inform the public about its contents. Like its cousins in the inland empire, the SSP is triggered when a transgender student wishes to go by their chosen name and/or pronouns or access the restroom, locker room, or sports team aligning with their gender identity. Before the school will honor the student’s identity or grant access to the requested facilities, the student is required to obtain parental consent. If the student does not or cannot obtain parental consent, CUSD’s own internal administrative guidelines direct personnel to contact the student’s parents by phone.

But CUSD does not stop there, and this is where the SSP vastly differs from its counterparts. If a student informs their school that they cannot obtain parental consent because of an unsupportive or unsafe home environment, the school must file an official report with Child Protective Services “[i]f there is evidence that parent notification would result in knowing or suspected child abuse.” Notably, CUSD’s policies do not provide guidance as to what circumstances would trigger CPS involvement.

Thus, transgender students face a terrible catch-22: if they wish to live authentically, they risk being forcefully outed either through direct parental notification or by the filing of a CPS report. 

“The SSP is bad policy that will endanger some percentage of the youth,” says Harbaugh. “We know that LGBTQ+ youth in general are overrepresented in the homeless, foster, and sexually trafficked population. This is most likely due to parent/guardian rejection.” 

The Trevor Project, citing research on parental rejection and suicidality, indicates “only one-third of LGBTQ+ youth experience parental acceptance,” and those who face high levels of rejection “are eight times more likely to report attempting suicide and six times more likely to report high levels of depression.” In addition, The Trevor Project reports that in 2021, nearly 40% of transgender youth faced homelessness and housing instability, corresponding with significantly higher rates of self-harm and suicidality than LGBTQ+ youth with stable housing.

These figures highlight the danger posed to transgender youth from policies like CUSD’s Student Site Plan. And with anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric becoming increasingly common, it is likely that these figures will only get worse. As of May 2023, the Human Rights Campaign noted that more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills had been introduced across the United States. Over 70 of these bills have been enacted. More than 220 of these bills specifically target transgender and non-binary individuals. 

Despite the risks the SSP poses, CUSD appears unwilling to even acknowledge the protocol’s existence. As of this date, CUSD has denied having a policy in place – and Harbaugh says this is technically correct. “The school district has never made the Student Site Plan an official policy through the appropriate channels, even as they enforce it as a policy and require staff to follow it as a policy privately.” The resulting “ghost in the system” is exceedingly difficult to challenge and is why Harbaugh and other advocates were forced to speak at the September 20 school board meeting during an open forum rather than address the policy as an item on the agenda. 

But even faced with forced outing policies and record-breaking numbers of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, community groups and advocates like Drew Harbaugh and PFLAG Fresno continue to fight for transgender and queer youth. And despite the tension at the September 20 school board meeting, more voices spoke out against the Student Site Plan than in favor – but that should not be taken to mean that the goal is to foster an adversarial approach between youth and parents. The goal is to improve communication and understanding between transgender youth and their families to ensure the youth have the support they need to thrive.

“Youth do better when they have supportive people at home,” Harbaugh says. “We want to help these students, trans youth, to have these conversations that can be difficult with their parents. From the parent’s side, we want to provide education and support so they can be there lovingly with their children. But you don’t get there by breaking a youth’s trust [by outing them]. You get there by creating a safe home environment.”

Time will tell whether CUSD’s Student Site Plan persists, but one thing is clear: transgender and queer youth deserve to live without fear of rejection or abuse. In closing, Harbaugh provides us all with an important reminder: “Trans students are human beings just trying to survive and thrive.”

The author wishes to extend a special thank you to Drew Harbaugh and PFLAG Fresno.

PFLAG Fresno is the Central Valley’s local chapter of PFLAG, a national organization founded 50 years ago to support the LGBTQ+ community and their loved ones. PFLAG Fresno has been supporting the local LGBTQ+ community for 30 years through its flagship support groups and community outreach. Drew Harbaugh (he/him) oversees these efforts as the Chapter President. 

Get involved! PFLAG Fresno, in collaboration with the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission (EOC) LGBTQ+ Resource Center, is building a lending library for the LGBTQ+ community! The library will ensure access to LGBTQ+ stories and information and will be housed at EOC’s Downtown Fresno location (1252 Fulton Street). The library is set to open on October 25. PFLAG is currently accepting donations of funds and books.