Mark McLaughlin, superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District in Ventura County, California, told a local newspaper an apparent falsehood Saturday. In an article published by the Thousand Oaks Acorn, he insinuated that a now nationally reported incident of a seventh-grade boy masturbating in class never happened.

Carrie Burgert, the mother of a girl in the boy’s class, accused the district at a September 20 school board meeting of withholding the incident. Her comments, which McLaughlin brushed aside at the time, went viral in conservative media. McLaughlin alleged in the Acorn article that the coverage instigated a death threat against him, and he said that he is considering a defamation lawsuit.

However, along with Burgert, a district employee with knowledge of the incident and Catie Chase, a mother of another girl in the same class, both confirmed to me that it happened, and that the teacher sent the boy to the principal’s office. Five district employees and one former employee interviewed for this article requested anonymity.

The spectacle could be regarded as an isolated case of misbehavior and a publicized mishandling of a sensitive situation among schoolkids. That would be a mistake. McLaughlin’s obstinacy in the face of parental concern is a representative example of public education officials in California scorning the concerns of non-progressive parents. Their behavior has bordered on contempt in the Conejo Valley over the last year, as the district and parents clash over policies regarding student sexuality.

“Everyone is walking on eggshells,” a district employee said. “Our teachers are feeling very uncomfortable that they may lose their job for taking a stand or because they have to go behind parents’ back[s].”

Nothing exemplifies this problem more than the district’s transgender policy. Teachers were presented a training document this school year, explaining that district employees shall not disclose a student’s gender transition to anyone without the student’s consent. A form used to record a student’s gender transition, accordingly, no longer requires a parent’s signature, as it had in previous years.

The training document cites a California Department of Education (CDE) legal advisory and FAQ document, which suggests that state and federal laws may provide minor students with a right to privacy. Violation of that privacy, it warns, could constitute discrimination. “Disclosing that a student is transgender without the student’s permission may violate California’s antidiscrimination law by increasing the student’s vulnerability to harassment,” the document says. The federal law cited is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

But advocates for parental rights contend that no such federal right to privacy for minors exists. “A minor’s right to privacy is traditionally held by the parents,” said Will Estrada, president of the Parental Rights Foundation, pointing to Supreme Court precedent. LeRoy Rooker, former director of the Department of Education’s Family Policy Compliance Office, similarly told Bethesda Magazine in 2021: “There’s absolutely nothing in FERPA that would say they would violate FERPA by disclosing that [gender transition] to parents. The violation would be in not disclosing it if the parents request it.”

A law firm was hired to train district officials on this subject, according to two sources. Its presentation outlines ways to abide by the district’s transgender policies and FERPA—including by noting a transgender student’s new identity on unofficial documentation not subject to parental review.

State law is more complicated, though no statute or court precedent has specifically granted students the right to privacy that the CDE claims, according to Karen England, president of California-based parental rights organization Capitol Resources. The California supreme court ruled in 1997 that the state constitution’s guarantee of a right to privacy allows a minor to receive an abortion without parental consent. A similar right extends to California public school students in grades seven through 12 to leave school for “medical, dental, optometrical, or chiropractic services rendered.”

“That’s where this idea of a right to privacy for minors comes from,” England says. “It’s very specific, and it does not include transitioning genders.”

In recent years, California legislators have heightened the controversy by requiring that children be educated on gender ideology and that school curriculum underscore LGBTQ themes, and by allowing transgendered students to participate in any sex-segregated school programs. CVUSD resisted the majority of these dictates through 2018. During that year’s election, though, a progressive wave in America’s suburbs reached the Conejo Valley. Progressive candidates backed by the teacher’s union and far-left activist groups ousted three conservative members of the five-member school board.

“There’s a group that’s come to the area called Indivisible Conejo,” one teacher said. “They’ve since plugged themselves into everything politically and gotten members on the school board. So, instead of finding a moderate approach to things, the board has been willing to slam through policies that take it to the extreme.” The new board embraced the CDE privacy guidance and state laws on LGBTQ-infused education with enthusiasm, empowering LGBTQ students and pushing parents aside.

“In 2018, what started happening was the idea of ‘affirming’ students who came out as gay or transgender,” a former district employee said. “Now we have this new class of individuals—as a school employee I’m going to do everything I can to support all students—but we suddenly have a new class of students who have more rights than others.”

Students are coming to understand their power. The Student District Advisory Council, for example, decided to remake the dress code in 2021. The council’s presentation at an April 20 board meeting argued that the existing code discriminated against LGBTQ individuals. “The dress code currently, punishes, shames, and blames us for others’ incorrect thoughts and actions,” a middle-school SDAC member said.

When board member Cindy Goldberg voiced concern that not enough teachers had provided input, the same student retorted, “Ms. Goldberg, could you please explain to me why you believe the dress code impacts our teachers?” Board vice president Lauren Gill also responded, saying, “It’s incorrect to suggest that any group has been denied the opportunity to offer feedback on this policy. I personally have received abundant feedback. We have a posted agenda. It’s public.”

The policy was enacted unanimously. Parents and teachers maintain, though, that they were unaware of the changes until after the fact. “Kids can now wear just about everything except their party suit,” a district employee said. “The student advisory council concluded that there was no ‘equity’ in the dress code, and changed everything without consulting the union, parents, or the community, or even administrators.”

Just as parents started coming to board meetings in reaction to the dress code, more policies came to light. The adoption of “Teen Talk,” sex-ed programming created by a nonprofit for seventh- and ninth-graders, for example, drew fervent pushback from parents.

“The seventh-grade Teen Talk curriculum is disgusting,” one teacher said. “It discusses anal, oral, straight sex, and so on. It talks about the mechanics of sex and how to change gender identities to seventh graders. It got parents upset.” Indeed, one seventh-grade presentation extensively details how one can alter one’s gender and sexual expression, with examples.

The school board dismissed parents’ concerns as dangerous. “While we understand the desire to find a rational reason for such hate, we should not minimize or provide cover for blatantly discriminatory comments and actions,” Jenny Fitzgerald, former board president, said at a June 15, 2021 meeting. “It is a dangerous practice in our society that historically leads to further verbal and even physical attacks.”

Since then, the district has maintained that parents are misinformed and that Teen Talk was “required” by the California Healthy Youth Act—though the statute makes no mention of any particular curriculum, leaving the details up to districts.

The guidance propagated by the CDE and policies implemented by CVUSD treat youngsters as legal and psychological equivalent of adults. Public education officials have no place interfering in what was once considered a prototypical duty of parenthood: to guide one’s child in learning about human sexuality. Per CDE guidance and CVUSD policy, parents of trans students are treated as potential sources of discrimination until the student says otherwise. No wonder district officials feel so confident ignoring local parents.

The district employees whom I have spoken with say that they’ve formed a group totaling approximately 70 members. They plan to combat the board’s toxification of their once-lauded schools. That’s a long-term project; in the short term, voters in the area will make choices to fill three of the five board seats next week.

Photo: Gabriele Maltinti/iStock


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next