Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Gender discrimination in schools

The California Education Committee has filed a complaint calling for declaratory judgment over California's planned change of language in their school antidiscrimination code. In particular, the rephrased statute replaces "sex" with "gender", and include "sexual orientation" to the list of topics against which teachers cannot discriminate. Gender is not only the physical sex of the person, but also how the person self-identifies and behaves.

Many of the arguments raised in the complaint are fairly poor. The complaint makes a lot of the teachers having to "have foreknowledge of the private mental impressions, thoughts, and disabilities of each person withwhom the educational institution comes into contact." The claim here is that one might unknowingly discriminate.

This line of reasoning falls apart in the face of the other, unchallenged categories for which it is unlawful to discriminate -- ethnic group identification, race, national origin, and religion among them -- which are invisible but which educators routinely refrain from discriminating against.

The practical argument has to do with restrooms and lockers. The plaintiffs are convinced the change in wording will allow all the boys to go into the girls' restrooms just by claiming transgendered status, and that this will constitute a violation of privacy and safety under California's constitution. I don't know that this is necessarily what the change in language intended, but the transgendered community makes their feelings well enough known that it seems it should have been contemplated as a possibility.

Somehow, it seems somewhat dubious that there would be a huge rush of typical juvenile boys identifying themselves as transgendered just to get these privileges. The social stigma is pretty high just for a chance to sit on the same toilet seat as a girl, or even the potential of changing in the same locker room as a girl (and thereby what? Maybe seeing a girl change briefly? In my high school, we never removed our underwear in the locker rooms). Though a lot of blogs fret over the possibility, I suspect nearly all of those who self-identify as transgendered do indeed have gender identity issues.

The plaintiffs cite the California constitution's promise of safety and privacy to support their claim that the change in wording is unconstitional. I have very little doubt the privacy clause in the California constitution was intended to limit government agents from invading privacy, not to place a duty on the government to keep residents from invading each other's privacy and/or safety. After all, if a transgendered person could invade someone's privacy, why couldn't a person of the same gender identity? If safety and privacy are that much of an issue, why aren't they pushing for everyone to have individually lockable private bathrooms?

The plaintiffs are probably right that requiring allowing transgendered individuals into the bathroom they identify with is a break from tradition, and therefore cultural expectations. However, it is a legislative change of culture, not a judicial one. The legislature is permitted, indeed intended, to make such changes. When the courts do it they are frequently criticized for judicial activism, even though many lauded freedoms were won only through the court's interpretations.

The Advocates of Faith and Freedom don't put their real reasoning into the complaint at all, but it is available on their website.

Senate Bill 777 and Assembly Bill 14 are radical threats to religious liberty. They attempt to eliminate your right to exercise your faith in everyday life by telling you that all forms of discrimination are illegal.
Yes, what they really want to argue is that discrimination based on gender identity or orientation is a religious right. Never mind that the bills apply specifically to educators in performing their government duties, something some of the religious refuse to wrap their heads around. This complaint isn't about privacy at all: it's about preserving the right to vilify homosexuals or prevent the status of being homosexual from being "normalized". The religious have been fighting -- and losing -- this battle for years.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Teachers v. Parents: a comparison

Teachers have a lot of gripes about parents. A recent article in Time magazine even goes through a litany of teacher woes concerning problem parents -- mostly those who hover too closely to their children or advocate too aggressively for them. Teachers fill sites with other complaints, as well -- parents who insult or undermine the teachers, who pull their children out of school, or who make unreasonable demands.

The message of the teachers is clear: parents often don't treat them fairly.

There's some substance to some of these complaints, of course. Any parent knows other parents who engage in questionable parenting practices. There's no mandatory certification or training process for being a parent. Teachers are all college graduates -- statistically, a high percentage of parents will not be.

In defense of these unreasonable parents, they don't generally have a lot of options. If it were an outright war, the weaponry available would look something like:

Parents (against teachers):

  • Abusive language
  • Ability to pull child from school
  • False accusations
Teachers (against parents or children)
  • Abusive language
  • False accusations
  • Ability to set policies
  • Summary imposition of punishment
  • Teaching inappropriately
  • Formal legal protection

There's clearly a substantial difference in the number and quality of techniques at the teacher's command. The teacher is largely unfettered by due process when imposing punishments, but protected by it when threatened. A teacher's accusation against a student leads to immediate punishment, whereas a complaint against a teacher is met with a long, drawn-out process that may lead to a reprimand, but is unlikely to result in removal.

Add to this that the school is essentially a teacher's turf. There are a bewildering number of acronyms and terminology for procedures, policies, and measures. The teacher often has years of experience inside a system that parents see only from the outside. Teacher contact and communication is entirely centralized.

One might hope that teachers would hold themselves to some standards of behavior, and likely most of them do. Nonetheless, they're still human, and still open to human weaknesses. One internet thread relays stories of teachers using racist language, criticizing family religious practices, denigrating students for being poor or having divorced parents, and other transgressions. It seems unlikely any of these would result in significant punishment for a teacher, and most states seem to report extraordinarily low numbers for tenured teachers being dismissed (on the order of less than ten per 50,000 per year) for either incompetence or cause.

One teacher cited in Time, Roxsana Jaber-Ansari, even proudly relates her defiance of parent desires:

Jaber-Ansari was challenged for hanging Bible quotes on her classroom walls. But she had studied her legal standing, and when she was confronted, "the principal supported me 100%," she says.

Perhaps Jaber-Ansari was on legally firm ground, and perhaps not (I'd hardly take the principal's word as definitive on the subject). But clearly she's running right over the concerns of some parents with no more than a cheerful thought of spreading her own values.

There is also a difference in the effect. A poor, abusive, or unreasonable teacher can affect a student for years, or their entire life. An unreasonable parent slewing invective against a teacher causes nothing more than an evening of crying. Small wonder, then, that a parent might become unreasonable on seeing that they have virtually no real power over their child's education sans a prohibitive investment of time or money.

Some teachers will disagree with this; they'll claim that the Board of Education or the Superintendent will bend over backwards (or, perhaps, forwards) for complaining parents. I've never seen these situations, and the ones I've heard about have mostly been regarding getting a student out of punishment. For myself, the only time I've had to influence the board I had to send them a notice citing statutory law and inform them their position was illegal before they'd bend a little. They didn't even say they'd conform to the law, but just softened their position somewhat.

Time is a polemic periodical: it has no obligation, legal or moral, to report from a balanced perspective. For this article, it's pretty clear where the bias lies.