Political Notes: Majority of CA school districts ignore LGBTQ report card

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday October 17, 2022
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Fewer districts participated in Equality California's Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card survey this year but more of the state's larger districts did take part. Photo: Courtesy myviewboard.com
Fewer districts participated in Equality California's Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card survey this year but more of the state's larger districts did take part. Photo: Courtesy myviewboard.com

A majority of California's K-12 public school districts continue to ignore a project that aims to track how well they are addressing the needs of their LGBTQ students. And even fewer districts took part in the 2022 report than did in the inaugural one released three years ago.

As the Bay Area Reporter reported upon the release of the Equality California Institute's 2019 Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, just 130 of the state's 343 unified school districts filled out the voluntary questionnaire sent to district administrators. This year, only 118 unified school districts responded. (School districts that only have high schools, or both middle and high schools, were not asked to participate.)

Among the schools districts in the Bay Area that did not turn in a response to EQCA were Albany, Benicia, Fremont, and Mount Diablo unifieds in the East Bay; Cloverdale and Calistoga Joint unifieds in the North Bay; and Gilroy and Morgan Hill unifieds in the South Bay. Law firm Latham & Watkins LLP again worked with EQCA on persuading school administrators to participate.

The COVID pandemic, which greatly disrupted schools, likely played a role in the drop off in the response rate to the 2022 survey, said Chris Negri, the report card program director for the educational arm of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization. Limited staff resources at the school districts was another factor, said Negri, who noted it takes about four hours to complete the 89 questions EQCA included in the survey.

"Obviously, there were difficulties and, for sure when we started this process, we envisioned getting more. That is something hopefully we will be able to do with the third one," said Negri, adding that work on the third report card to be released in 2024 will begin next year.

As for this year's report card, released October 11 on National Coming Out Day, Negri told the B.A.R. in a phone interview last week that EQCA was pleased to see more of the state's large suburban school districts take part than did in 2019. For example, the Fontana Unified School District in San Bernardino County east of Los Angeles and Elk Grove Unified School District south of Sacramento both filled out the survey for the first time this year.

"This time we did do better than the first year with better coverage of the largest 25 school districts in the state," said Negri, who also told the B.A.R. many school districts since 2019 have made "significant forward movement" on addressing the needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

The participating school districts were grouped into three categories based on their scores. Nineteen landed in the best group, dubbed the Spotlight Tier, including the San Francisco (score of 162), Oakland (149), and San Diego (157) unified school districts.

The Cabrillo Unified School District in Half Moon Bay along the San Mateo County coast scored the highest with 191 points. At 187 points, the Pittsburg Unified School District in Contra Costa County had the second highest score.

"Various school districts across the state are moving into the Spotlight Tier indicates our work is not isolated to the coasts and to large cities clustered around Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. It is happening around the state. That is encouraging and one thing that emerged from the report this time," said Negri, who will present an award to San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Matt Wayne, Ph.D., at the district's administrative offices Tuesday, October 18, for its work in support of LGBTQ students.

Forty-seven school districts made it into the second grouping, called the Foundational Tier, including the Bay Area districts of Santa Clara and Healdsburg (both scored 147), Alameda (146), Berkeley (135), Livermore Valley Joint (131), Castro Valley (123), San Ramon Valley (120), South San Francisco (119) and San Jose (117).

"We have come a long way very fast and I am very proud of it. We were 28 on the list and among the top 10% of school districts that responded," said gay married dad Ryan LaLonde, who chairs Alameda unified's LGBTQ Round Table for parents, students and staff.

Stressing he was not speaking on behalf of the district, but personally, LaLonde noted it was only 13 years ago that members of the city's school board faced recall threats and the district was sued by residents upset at it adopting an anti-LGBTQ bullying policy. The district lost points on EQCA's report for not having a policy addressing if targets of bullying can transfer to a different school.

It was also deducted points for not specifying if students can bring a date of any gender to a school-sponsored event or dance. It also lost points for saying it doesn't have a district-wide dress code/appearance policy, though LaLonde told the B.A.R. the district adopted such a policy in 2019 so perhaps whoever filled out the form misunderstood the question.

Noting he was chaperoning his son's high school homecoming dance Saturday night, LaLonde said there is no rule against students bringing a date of the same gender. The district should be able to improve its score for the 2024 report, predicted LaLonde.

"The areas in which we were dinged, or had lower percentages, I am not surprised by them, and they are areas they are working on," said LaLonde, who is running for a school board seat on the November 8 ballot.

The remaining 52 school districts landed in the third group, the Priority Tier. Bay Area districts included Fairfield-Suisun and Hayward (both 112), Sonoma Valley (98) John Swett (89) in western Contra Costa County, and Emery (85) in the Alameda County city of Emeryville.

Coming in with the lowest score, of 29, was the Santa Ana Unified School District in Orange County. School districts could earn a total of 216 points.

"We are pleased folks submitted this information across the board, including in the Priority districts," said Negri. "A majority are small rural school districts, many of whom deal with resource constraints that make implementation of some of these policies more difficult than would be the case in more affluent districts."

Negri doesn't view the districts in the third tier in a negative light and is planning to meet with 50 of them in the coming months to go over their report card score. The fact they bothered to fill out EQCA's school survey indicates they take the issue seriously, he argued.

"We spoke to school districts where the district staff is two people, no joke," he said. "For them to have one person, who has a thousand other responsibilities, to do this and have in-depth conversations with us and honest conversations indicates their strong degree of dedication to this."

Key findings

Among the key findings from the 2022 report card was that 48% of the responding districts have yet to adopt LGBTQ+-inclusive textbooks or other instructional materials for history and social studies classes at the high school level. And nearly half (47%) of the districts have schools without a gender neutral restroom facility available for students not located in a nurse's office or faculty lounge.

"All school districts should be using educational materials that are compliant with the FAIR Education Act, which has been state law for more than a decade, and should be allowing students to use accessible restrooms and locker rooms according to their gender identity, which has been law for nearly a decade as well," states the report, which recommends that "additional support and resources should be made available to districts to support more effective and uniform implementation of these long-standing state laws."

Another figure from the report card is that 70% of districts (83/118) have an anti-bullying policy that explicitly prohibits anti-LGBTQ bullying. The statistic "suggests that a significant number of school districts across the state are not explicitly prohibiting bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and that a significant number are not keeping track of bullying complaints to ensure that incidents are addressed and resolved," noted the report.

EQCA means for the report card to be a jumping off point for LGBTQ students, parents, and school officials to use to address weak spots in policy and improve school environments. It is also a useful tool for state legislators and policymakers to utilize in crafting school guidelines and legislation focused on improving the school climate for LGBTQ+ students in the Golden State and elsewhere.

"Additional legislation and funding may be needed, new assessments of school climate may need to be conducted, and ongoing community outreach and engagement is critical," notes EQCA in the report.

Downloadable copies of both school report cards, as well as a searchable database to see the scores of individual districts, can be found online here.

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Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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