Podcast podcast
Feb 14 2024

Michael Torres joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the harms of public schools’ transgender secrecy policies.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Michael Torres. He is the deputy editor of RealClearPennsylvania, where he writes about education policy, politics, and other matters. We publish his writing on Pennsylvania in City Journal, and his work has been featured in National Review and Newsweek. Today, though, we’re going to discuss his essay in our new issue, “We Thought She Was a Great Teacher,” which appears in the latest edition of City Journal and describes the harms of public schools’ transgender secrecy policies, and it’s a very disturbing story that Michael tells. So thanks very much for coming on.

Michael Torres: Thank you, Brian, for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Brian Anderson: School districts across the country, not everywhere, but many places, are adopting secrecy policies, I guess you would just call them, which require staff members to conceal students’ gender anxieties and transitions from their parents. In your essay, you tell a story of a 10-year-old girl, whom you named Tia, in Washington State whose parents were horrified to discover that her teacher had, without their consent, encouraged her to identify as a boy. They wound up fleeing the country, the family. So I wonder if you could just give us a brief summary of what this story tells us.

Michael Torres: So the story came to me from a local resident who emailed after seeing previous writing I had published at City Journal, who told me that there was something happening in Olympia that he thought I should know about. After speaking with other folks in the community, I finally got in contact with some parents who have children in the school that Tia attended, and they started telling me the story of what happened with the young girl. And what happened was early in 2022, the spring of 2022, Tia socially transitioned at school with her teacher. Her teacher was the one who encouraged it, according to the folks I spoke with, including a couple of Tia’s classmates. Over the course of several months, she had established a very close relationship with this teacher, a very affectionate relationship to the point where she was spending a lot of time with the teacher and not as much time with her friends anymore. How exactly the subject of transitioning genders came up is not clear. Some folks have various guesses. One that came up was that she came to school in an Indian dress.

Her family is immigrants from India, and she complained to her teacher that the dress was itchy, and the teacher mentioned to her that maybe she didn’t like wearing dresses because she isn’t a girl. Based off of the conversations I had with parents and students like that, what I came to understand was that the child came out to the teacher and said, “Hey, I want to be a boy. My name is going to be Felix and I don’t want to tell my parents.” So the teacher stood in front of the class one day and told the rest of the 10-year-old students that the girl they had previously known is now a boy and her new name is Felix, and that none of them could tell any of their parents because if any of their parents knew, they might out Tia to her parents. So essentially this established a secret between all of the students in this fifth-grade class and many of the staff in the school, and that secret was kept from all of their parents.

Eventually, when Tia’s parents did find out, because this is a group of 10-year-olds and they didn’t keep it from their parents very long, they were horrified, quite frankly, had no idea what was going on, although they had noticed that the mental health of their daughter had declined significantly over the course of several months. And then the mother finally confronted the teacher who was responsible for this, only for the teacher to completely ignore her as soon as the teacher realized that the mother knew that the girl had transitioned genders. When the mother confronted the principal, the principal said that the teacher had only followed policy and they had done nothing wrong.

At that point, the family decided that they needed to flee, so they ran to Oregon not knowing what to do because the officials in charge of the education of their daughter were standing firm in having done this humongous transgression of responsibility in the face of parents who did not want this to happen. So they were scared. They’re immigrants. They didn’t know what to do. So they ran first to Oregon until the mother started realizing that the daughter was receiving secret emails from the teacher. And at that point, the family decided to leave back to India.

Brian Anderson: Wow. It’s quite a shocking story, and as you just suggested, it involves not only the teacher and student in question, but all of the students. So there is this driving of a wedge between the children and their families. How did the secrecy policy at Tia’s school affect her classmates?

Michael Torres: That was one of the biggest issues to me personally as I was interviewing people for this article, was I ended up having conversations with a couple of the students because I was having conversations with their parents, and in the background, I would hear the child relaying information. So I ended up having conversations with the children and their parents. And what they explained was that it became extremely emotional. They became detached from Tia because they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to refer to her. And at one point, one of the mothers said that two of Tia’s friends were at the house doing a school project that Tia was a part of. And when the mother asked what Tia’s part of the project was, the children had absolutely no idea how to speak about her. They were saying, “Her, him, he, I don’t know.”

And the girl, the mother’s daughter, started breaking down because she thought she was going to get in trouble with the school and she had no idea how to talk about the girl. So it was an emotional situation for Tia and her family, of course, but it broke the trust between all of the parents and the school or a lot of the parents in the school and caused a rift between the students and their parents, not just Tia and her parents.

Brian Anderson: Now, Tia’s teacher, you call her Mrs. A in the essay, really as you suggest, seemed to go out of her way to encourage Tia to question her gender and conceal this from her parents. But as you note in the article, these kind of programs are reinforced by the school here, but not just here, nationwide, I think upward of 1,000 school districts have these secrecy policies for children who are expressing gender dysphoria, and the number is growing. In this case, the parents left the country they were so horrified. How are parents more broadly perceiving these secrecy policies?

Michael Torres: I would say not well in most cases. We’re starting to see a lot of states react more forcefully to them. News just came out today as we’re recording, that the Kansas Attorney General is taking action of some sort. I’m not sure exactly what, against several school districts in that state for doing exactly this. And there are obviously lawsuits being filed by parents in all sorts of states, California, Massachusetts, Virginia, because school officials are secretly transitioning their children behind parents’ backs, where I would expect the number of lawsuits to grow significantly in the coming years. And I hope that courts strike these down, but I would not be surprised if this eventually landed in the Supreme Court because issues like this have landed in the Supreme Court before, as I noted in the article. Parents’ rights to care and manage the growth of their children, is something that the court has addressed before and was valued as one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

But I also wanted to note that as parents are reacting so negatively, one of the reasons Tia’s story was so important and why I decided to write about it was not just because it’s dramatic and emblematic of how parents are reacting. Obviously a parent would react with anger, desperation, very, very large emotions if you were confronted with this sudden fact of what happened with your child behind your back. But it revealed also the method through which these policies are coming into existence in the first place because schools are enacting these policies based off of a notion that the parents are dangerous to their children. I think that’s inherent and extremely important to understand. That is why when Tia’s mother came to the school to confront the teacher and the administrators, that they did not respond to her at all. They simply ignored her claims of injustice and told the mother that they were following policy. And the reason for that is because the mother is presumed dangerous because the daughter did not want the mother to know until the child says otherwise.

Brian Anderson: A 10-year-old?

Michael Torres: Yes.

Brian Anderson: That’s amazing. Some schools are citing a federal measure, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, as the legal basis for secrecy policies. But you note that FERPA, as it’s called, was designed to enhance parents’ access to private information about their kids. And Supreme Court decisions have repeatedly, as you just noted, affirmed parental control. Recently, several parents have sued school districts over their secrecy policies. Where do these cases that you’ve mentioned stand, and in your view, do these legal challenges offer promising defense against these policies? Perhaps so given the Supreme Court’s history in this area of parental rights.

Michael Torres: I have high hopes that they will be successful, at least in certain jurisdictions. And I think Manhattan Institute’s fellow, Leor Sapir, has done a lot of good work discussing the various cases that are going on and even submitting amicus briefs to some of them. So I would highly recommend reading his work as well. As far as FERPA goes, I thought this instance with Tia really lent itself to digging into how these policies could come to exist at all. How could this happen? It’s such a dramatic case, and the secrecy between the students and the staff from the parents is so amazing to me. It floored me as I was learning about it. I wanted to understand how these policies could ever come into existence in the first place.

And as I mentioned, the dogma of danger is really at the heart of it. Groups like the GLSEN and the Trevor Project, which are organizations that advocate for LGBTQ public policy issues, have for years promulgated this dogma to school officials, school boards, teachers, administrative staff, officials in state level agencies, that if a child expresses gender dysphoria and they are not immediately affirmed, the danger of them committing suicide or being severely abused is imminent and absolute. And the only option that officials have is to affirm, and based off of that notion, which they justify via statistics and data that they provide themselves, their own surveys, which again, Leor Sapir has done a good job of debunking a lot of that information. But based off of that, they influence lawmakers and school officials to create policies that, a good example is Washington State, that say that if a child expresses that they want to express or that they want to transition genders, their parents do not need to be informed because it could be dangerous.

They literally use the word dangerous in Washington. And then based off of that, they go further and say, based off of that danger, they will use FERPA, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to create a right to privacy for the student from the parent. But as you noted, FERPA was not enacted for that. None of this is in FERPA. You can read the entire law and come to the easy conclusion that this makes absolutely no sense, because in fact, FERPA was created so that parents would have more access to the information of what was going on with their child at school, and third parties would only be able to access that information with a parent’s request. The only time that there’s an exception to this rule is if the child is 18 and an adult. So I think that’s very important to understand, the misuse of FERPA based on the dogma of danger is how these policies came to exist and how Tia’s story came to happen at all.

Brian Anderson: Well, with the secrecy policies attempting to sideline parents, this obviously invites someone to step in and be the adult guidance for children. This is a very disturbing scenario. I think, yes, most parents would be outraged by it, but how can parents prepare their kids to withstand these kind of influences in situations where there are secrecy policies in place and where you do have what I view as a social contagion with regard to these shifts in gender that kids are expressing all of a sudden? This is a copycat phenomenon to some extent.

Michael Torres: Yeah, I think the most important thing parents need to do is follow organizations like Manhattan Institute and City Journal, groups like Parents Defending Education, which are taking a lot of action across the country so that they can know what is happening and why it’s happening. Because if they find out that their school district has been doing this sort of thing for years and they hadn’t paid attention, it might be too late. Their child will have been indoctrinated into this way of thinking, possibly by having had other students transition and them having had been told by the folks in charge with educating them, some of the most important people in their lives, their teachers, telling them that they have to keep it secret from their parents. So it’s important first to understand what is happening, why it’s happening, and if it’s happening in your school district, because groups like Parents Defending Education have lists of school districts that have adopted these policies, and then also obviously speak to your children about it.

I think when I was speaking to the parents in Washington, that was undoubtedly one of the most important things that they brought up, was how important it was to talk to their children about it because their children were scared. They were scared of being in trouble with their teachers. They were scared of getting into trouble with administrators and the principal, they were talked to about this issue all the time by the folks who are important to them in their schools. And those folks are very big authority figures in a 10-year old’s life. They don’t want to get in trouble. So knowing that a parent is there to have their back is obviously extremely important. And just to that point, to go back to Tia, one of the things that really tugged at my heart the most when I was learning about her story was when Tia finally broke down to her mother.

That’s how her mother came to figure it out. One day she broke down, started crying to her mom and said to her mom that, “I don’t want to be a boy anymore.” And her mom said, “What are you talking about?” She said that she didn’t want to be a boy anymore. She wants to go back to school and play with her friends like normal and be a girl but she was afraid that Mrs. A would be mad at her. And that’s just a breathtaking situation and underscores the importance of knowing the relationship your child has with their teachers, knowing the policies your schools have for these sorts of situations, and understanding the extent to which school districts are stepping in between the relationship between parents and children when it’s completely inappropriate.

Brian Anderson: After your article was published by us, Michael, did you get any feedback from people who were involved in this scenario or just generally concerned about this issue?

Michael Torres: Yes, I did a bit. Unfortunately, Tia’s family, they don’t want to talk to anybody. I tried getting in contact with them several times. They’re in India and don’t want to relive this situation. They did give their friends in Washington the permission to tell their story on their behalf, which is how I came to know all of this. After the story was published, some of the folks I spoke to noted to me that the teacher has moved to a different school. Whether she was moved on purpose or chose to move, I’m not sure, but obviously the relationship she had with the current student body and teachers was frayed, to say the least. So she was moved to a different school, but she’s still teaching students at an elementary level in the same town. And I’m not sure whether the school district or the state will care very much to take much action because until or unless parents take decisive action to file lawsuits, they may face no consequences.

It’s a very liberal state. Although there is one consequence that they are facing, the school district in Olympia is hemorrhaging students. In fact, many of the families I spoke to, including some that were not included in the story, have either left the state or at least left the school district. And as a consequence, the school district is losing a lot of funding. A lot of money is going downhill. They’re actually closing a school from what I understand, and folding a couple of schools into one. So it’s clear evidence that as schools like this embark on these absolutist policies in the LGBTQ arena as well as other things that have happened post pandemic, they’re having a significant financial consequence on school districts as parents decide to just leave. So that’s the other consequence that’s happening.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Michael. The essay—it is in our brand-new issue—is called “We Thought She Was a Great Teacher.” It is a compelling reading. Don’t forget to check out Michael Torres’s work on the City Journal website, that’s at www.city-journal.org. We’ll link to his author page in the description, and you can find him on X @MindofTorres. You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. As always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Michael, thanks very much for coming on.

Michael Torres: Thank you very much, Brian.

Photo: PeopleImages/E+ via Getty Images

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