The head of California’s public education system, Tony Thurmond, tells the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit he hopes to sponsor new legislation in the coming days that would require additional training on LGBTQ issues for all middle and high school teachers throughout the state.
“We are going to start raising awareness now,” Thurmond said. “We will go up and down this state talking about the importance of the bill, but more importantly the importance of supporting our students.”
If passed, the reforms could go into effect as early as next school year.
'A Bill of This Kind Has Never Been Implemented Before'
Thurmond first pushed the reform effort last year, as a state assemblyman, following an NBC Bay Area investigation that exposed a serious lack of teacher training that may be leaving educators unprepared for the growing number of transgender students.
“A bill of this kind has never been implemented before,” Thurmond said during a September interview with the Investigative Unit, shortly after the Legislature passed his legislation.
“There’s nothing about this bill that in any way should infringe upon parental rights. All it does is it acknowledges that sometimes things come up in the school environment and we have to have a way to address it for the safety of our children.”
Despite approval from the Legislature, then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the plan.
“If local schools find that more training or resources on this topic is needed, they have the flexibility to use their resources as they see best,” Brown wrote in a statement.
Thurmond, who was sworn in as Superintendent of Public Education earlier this month, said he has yet to discuss the reform plan with Gov. Gavin Newsom but is confident California’s newest governor will not share the same opposition to the bill as Brown.
Teacher Training on Gender Issues Varies Widely
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spent the past two years obtaining records and reviewing policies from the 20 largest school districts across the Bay Area, which enroll nearly half a million students. According to the findings, even when gender education is offered to teachers, training varies widely. Courses for educators range from just 19 minutes to 16 hours, according to data collected and analyzed by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit.
Two years ago, an NBC Bay Area investigation revealed that five of the largest school districts in the Bay Area, home to more than 105,302 students, did not offer any teacher training at all. After that initial investigation aired, however, three school districts – East Side Union, Napa Valley Unified, and Livermore Valley Joint Unified – changed their policies to begin training educators. San Jose Unified and Vallejo City Unified still do not offer any gender training to teachers.
To learn more about what types of training are offered at schools in your area, use the interactive chart, below.
Educators Enact Major Changes, Credit NBC Bay Area Investigation
Following the series of NBC Bay Area reports, several Bay Area school districts have taken steps to implement new teacher training programs. This year, 61 schools added new training courses to help educators better navigate gender issues in the classroom. The schools, which enroll nearly 60,000 students, were the subject of a previous NBC Bay Area investigation, which revealed a wide disparity in the level and frequency of gender training at schools across the Bay Area.
“There’s lots of communities and lots of communities who have [blinders on] -- we don’t want to see it. And we are not that community, we are not that district," said Chris Van Schaak, assistant superintendent of the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District.
'It Did Give Me Pause'
When Van Schaak first spoke to the Investigative Unit in 2017, his school district was not providing gender training to educators. Beginning this school year, however, Livermore Valley Joint Unified is now offering new online training to its 650 teachers.
“Honestly, the conversation you and I had last year … it did give me pause,” said Van Schaak, speaking to Senior Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban during a recent interview. “You know what, we need to do more. There are certainly students at every school in our district who identify themselves as transgender.”
Van Schaak believes providing additional training for teachers will help ensure students receive a proper education.
“That student having somebody that they can connect with is essential and whether it's a trans student or an African-American student or a student who doesn't speak English -- they have to know that there's a support system there,” he said. “Without that, you know, the student has very limited chances of being successful.”
An Estimated 1.5 million Adults and Teens are Transgender
More than 1.5 million adults and teens identify as transgender, according to estimates from the Williams Institute. The number of trans children, however, is largely unknown. Yet, the population is expected to rise in light of relatively new changes in international clinical guidelines that allow children to begin physically transforming their bodies at younger ages.
“All we’re trying to do is create an environment where all kids are welcome,” said Chris Funk, superintendent for the Eastside Union High School District, which recently began implementing new gender training for teachers.
“We're just getting caught up in times,” said Funk. “We were slow to respond, and this was an area that we just feel like where the time is right for us, and it's something that we have to do.”
Social workers have been leading training sessions across the district – educating about 1,100 teachers, including English teacher Lauri Weckesser.
“I learned some new things,” said Weckesser, who has been teaching for 26 years. “I’d like to think that I'm someone who stays current on things that are happening with teenagers, but there were some things in that training that I didn't even know.”
'It's About All Students'
The training tackles real-life scenarios and also explains that some trans students prefer plural pronouns like “they” or “them” instead of “he” or “she.”
Weckesser said she has repeatedly been the first adult students have come out to in revealing their identity as transgender.
“It's pretty amazing that a kid will trust you that much to tell something that personal, and it feels like a responsibility to hold that trust and to help this kid kind of negotiate their way through what's going to happen to them the next four years at our school,” she said.
“We have to support our trans students, but we also have to teach our other students who are not trans … how to be accepting of everyone's experience as well. It’s about all students.”