Political Notes: Bay Area legislative candidates would require school districts to respond to LGBTQ report card

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday February 26, 2024
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Assembly candidates Catherine Stefani, left, and David Lee joined state Senate candidate Dan Kalb in supporting legislation requiring public school districts to participate in the Equality California Institute's biennial schools report. Photos: Courtesy the candidates
Assembly candidates Catherine Stefani, left, and David Lee joined state Senate candidate Dan Kalb in supporting legislation requiring public school districts to participate in the Equality California Institute's biennial schools report. Photos: Courtesy the candidates

Since the release of its 2019 Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, the Equality California Institute has been striving to raise more awareness about what education leaders across the Golden State are doing to better address the needs of LGBTQ students. Yet, response to the biennial survey by K-12 public school districts has been dismal.

Fewer districts took part in the 2022 report than the 130 that participated in the inaugural one. As the Bay Area Reporter reported upon its release, only 118 of the state's 343 unified school districts responded. (School districts that only have high schools, or both middle and high schools, were not asked to participate.)

While the ongoing COVID pandemic probably played a role in the lackluster return rate, EQCA officials also pointed to limited school staff resources as for why the majority of districts failed to participate. The survey, which asked 89 questions two years ago, took about four hours to complete, estimated EQCA.

Its third schools report card is slated for release sometime in 2024. EQCA spokesperson Jorge Reyes Salinas told the B.A.R. this month that the plan is to once again time its release to National Coming Out Day on October 11.

"Yes, we are releasing our 3rd report this year, we release the report and the website around fall," said Salinas.

How schools are providing a safe learning environment for LGBTQ pupils has taken on even greater importance since the debut of EQCA's report cards. Over the last two years LGBTQ school policies have become a flashpoint on campuses across the state, with conservative school board members moving to ban Pride flags from classrooms and LGBTQ-themed books from libraries.

A number have adopted forced outing policies of children who are transgender or gender-nonconforming. An effort is now underway to qualify a statewide ballot measure restricting what bathrooms such students can use at school and the sports teams they can play on, in addition to blocking their access to gender-affirming care.

Considering the majority of the state's K-12 school districts didn't bother to respond to EQCA's last survey, the B.A.R. asked candidates running in three competitive Bay Area state legislative races about backing a bill requiring the districts to take part in the report cards. Five of the six who responded said outright that they would.

"Having accurate data on LGBTQ issues, especially in schools, is critical to better understand school district demographics," wrote queer former Richmond city councilmember Jovanka Beckles, now an elected member of the board that oversees the AC Transit public transportation agency. "Teachers and other school staff, including students, need to know what queer students are experiencing. I support all legislation that would provide data needed to provide safe places and resources queer youth need especially, but not exclusively, mental health services."

Beckles, a married mother, is running to succeed termed out state Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) in the East Bay's 7th Senate District that spans western Contra Costa and Alameda counties. She was one of three candidates in the race who turned in the B.A.R.'s questionnaire.

Also responding in the affirmative to the question was fellow queer married mom Kathryn Lybarger, who also identifies as lesbian.

"Yes. These surveys are important to help us understand the needs of LGBTQ+ students and how we can better support them through programs and policies," wrote Lybarger, a Berkeley resident who is president of the California Labor Federation.

Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, a straight ally, told the B.A.R. he would be "happy to support legislative and/or regulatory efforts ensuring that all school districts respond to said EQCA survey. Making this a statewide requirement may require sign-off by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction or State Board of Education."

Educator David Lee, a straight ally who has taught at San Francisco State University and Laney College, part of the East Bay's Peralta Community College District, also told the B.A.R. he would champion a bill to ensure school districts took part in the survey. The Democrat is vying to succeed termed out Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) in his Assembly District 19 seat that covers the city's western neighborhoods.

"If elected, I would support legislation requiring public school districts to respond to EQCA's school surveys on LGBTQ issues. Gathering this vital data is the first step we can take to protecting LGBTQ youth in schools," wrote Lee.

The frontrunner in the race, District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani, also told the B.A.R. that "yes," she backed such legislation.

"I was honored to receive Equality California's endorsement and look forward to partnering with them throughout my time in the Assembly," wrote Stefani, the sister of two out siblings.

Gay former West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon, seeking the open District 3 Senate seat that sprawls across a number of counties, from Contra Costa and Sonoma to Yolo and Sacramento, didn't explicitly say he favored a legislative approach to force school leaders to fill out the report card surveys. He did tell the B.A.R. having such data is essential.

"With far-right politicians and activists weaponizing LGBTQ issues to hurt students, it is important that we not only stand up unequivocally against their hate but that we have the data and information necessary to mount a serious counter-offensive," wrote Cabaldon, a consultant on higher education issues. "I support EQCA's school surveys on LGBTQ issues and believe we need to build upon them and utilize them to invest in the types of policies and safety measures that defend our LGBTQ youth. We cannot — and will not — allow a group of maliciously motivated reactionaries to force LGBTQ students back into the closet, or just as dangerously, force them out. LGBTQ students get to live free from fear and intimidation, and I will always stand up for them."

As for EQCA, when asked by the B.A.R. if it is open to pursuing legislation that would require school districts take part in its survey of their LGBTQ policies, Salinas did not rule it out.

"Our goal with our Safe and Supportive Schools Survey is to build strong, supportive relationships with unified school districts and to provide students, parents, educators, and community advocates with a tool to make a positive movement toward safe and supportive school climates for LGBTQ+ and all students," stated Salinas. "We would strongly consider legislation that would continue strengthening protections for LGBTQ+ students in schools and support the implementation of legislation that improves the overall experience of LGBTQ+ students in a classroom."

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

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

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