San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
District shuts gay-straight alliance after outcry
Salinas Valley teachers put on leave amid questions over outreach tactics
Over the fall, a pair of middle school teachers from the Salinas Valley traveled to Palm Springs for the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference. There, on a Saturday afternoon, Lori Caldeira and Kelly Baraki spoke to a few dozen people about a subject they knew well: the difficulty of running a GSA, or gay-straight alliance, in a socially conservative community.
Speaking about recruiting students, Baraki said, “When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing schoolwork. One of them was Googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”
Shortly after the October conference, a surreptitious
recording of the presentation was handed to a conservative writer known for asserting that transgender adolescents are part of a dangerous “craze.” She published a story Nov. 18 headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids,” criticizing Caldeira and Baraki for actions they had seen as proper: keeping club members’ identities confidential from parents and finding a couple of potential members by viewing their online activity in class.
One day after the article came out, Caldeira and Baraki’s presentation on the difficulties of running their GSA would prove prophetic: Leaders of the Spreckels Union School District suspended the club. Four days later, the district opened an investigation and placed the teachers on administrative leave.
The controversy has roiled the small district south of Salinas and east of Monterey, alarming advocates for LGBTQ youth and marking one of several recent incidents in which influential conservative voices have forced the hands of local officials.
The episode raises broader questions about educators’ growing ability to monitor what students do online, which accelerated during the pandemic, and about what responsibility schools have to provide safe spaces such as gaystraight alliances for LGBTQ students who may not have support from peers and parents.
Caldeira and Baraki, who said they have received violent threats since the story went viral in some circles, said they are worried about their students. Both teach at Buena Vista Middle School, which has an enrollment of about 360.
“Can you imagine? Seriously, we have kids in our club right now who are out at school, (but) they’re not out at home. The only two teachers that they have ever spoken to have been taken away,” said Caldeira, her voice and hands shaking as she spoke at a Monterey coffee shop in her first interview since the district suspended the GSA. “I’m sure they’re terrified, because where are they going to go, and who are they going to talk to, you know?”
Caldeira said the club — called UBU (You Be You) — had for more than six years allowed students to ask questions they might not be ready to bring up with their families.
“Our conversations were always student-led, which is why they frequently surrounded LGBTQ topics. Because the kids have questions,” she said. “Their parents think we start that conversation, but we don’t. TikTok starts it, Snapchat starts it, Instagram starts it or their classmates start it, and then we just try to answer the questions as honestly and fairly as we can.”
The district has started a third-party investigation into the actions of the teachers. Officials declined to be interviewed by The Chronicle, but Superintendent Eric Tarallo, school board President Steve McDougall and Buena Vista Principal Kate Pagaran released a statement Nov. 19 apologizing to parents while promising that the district would exert tighter control over student clubs and bar teachers from “monitoring students’ online activity for any non-academic purposes.”
At the school board’s Dec. 15 meeting, member Michael Scott said, “I am hopeful a third-party investigation will provide a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the UBU club and how it was run, that any subsequent action should be responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of the Spreckels community.”
The Palm Springs presentation by Caldeira and Baraki was similar in many ways to talks they’ve given for four or five years, they said. For an hour and 15 minutes, they spoke informally to about 40 people.
Caldeira, who in 2017 won an award for her work with special-needs students, said she requested that the presentation not be recorded. “We do deal with middle schoolers,” she said, “and it can be sensitive content at times.”
But the secret audio made its way to Abigail Shrier, author of “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” which has been criticized as unscientific and inflammatory. On Nov. 18, she published the first of four stories about the Spreckels teachers on her Substack newsletter, the Truth Fairy, where she has argued that transgender women “are not women” and that genderaffirming school policies abuse parents’ rights.
Shrier focused heavily on Baraki’s comment about seeing a student’s Google search for “Trans Day of Visibility,” characterizing this as “surveillance” of potential recruits into the GSA.
The Chronicle could not obtain audio of the presentation, but Caldeira confirmed she and Baraki had been accurately quoted by Shrier. However, she said many of the comments were misconstrued and taken out of context.
According to the newsletter, the two teachers said in the presentation that they do not keep roll of who comes to the club and do not tell parents whether their child attends a meeting, actions that were not required by the school. California law protects students’ right to privacy in gender identity and any activities they participate in based on that.
“For those paying attention,” Shrier wrote, “the educators who guide California teachers in the creation of middle school LGBTQ clubs asserted the following: they struggle to maintain student participation in the clubs; many parents oppose the clubs; teachers surveil students electronically to ferret out students who might be interested, after which the identified student is recruited to the club via a personal invitation.”
Reaction to Shrier’s post was immediate: Several conservative outlets picked up the story, and parents inside and outside the community inundated the school district with complaints. The district’s statement called the teachers’ comments as quoted by Shrier “alarming, concerning, disappointing.”
Caldeira said she and Baraki were blindsided. While the district stressed in its statement that it didn’t know in advance what Caldeira and Baraki would talk about in their presentation, school officials were well aware of what the club was all about, Caldeira said.
“Our superintendent has attended our meetings. He’s attended our events,” she said. “Our club has been used as part of our suicide-prevention plan, saying that we have these spaces available for students in crisis.”
Lisa Gardiner, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association, declined to comment specifically about the case, citing the ongoing personnel investigation, but said, “We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities for their own political gain.”
Caldeira said she did not monitor student activities on her own initiative. With the onset of virtual learning, Buena Vista Middle School began using GoGuardian, a software that is usually installed on school-provided devices and allows teachers to see what students are doing on their computers while they are in class. The software is designed to flag words or behaviors identifying children at risk of harming themselves or others.
According to its website, GoGuardian is used in 30,000 schools with over 22 million K-12 students, helping teachers communicate with students and keep them on task. Caldeira said her school uses the software for suicide and violence prevention as well, but that individual teachers do not have access to that information. The district declined to answer questions about its use of GoGuardian.
Caldeira said she didn’t intend to track her students’ activities online — “My theory is: If you were off task, the consequence is a poor grade,” she said — but that one day, as she used the software to chat with students, she noticed one student on a website about the Transgender Day of Visibility.
“I see a site that’s emblazoned with rainbows,” she said. “How am I not going to notice that?” After class, she said, she made a mental note to invite the student to the UBU club.
Baraki had a similar experience, Caldeira said, once noticing a student on an LGBTQ website. She said the two shared these anecdotes at the conference, “but that was it.”
As for the “we totally stalked what they were doing on Google” comment, Caldeira said, “It was tongue in cheek.” She said teachers do not have access to students’ private social posts, messages and emails.
If the school’s investigation finds that Caldeira and Baraki had taken action based on students’ online activity during class through GoGuardian, there is probably no law preventing what they did, privacy experts said.
Amelia Vance, vice president of youth and education at the Future of Privacy Forum, explained that, legally speaking, an educator
seeing something a student is doing through GoGuardian is not any different from a teacher walking around a classroom and noticing students’ behavior or what they had visible on their screens.
Vance said there are no laws barring teachers from approaching students about a GSA. And under California law, teachers cannot tell parents anything about their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity without the child’s permission, “with rare exceptions,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Still, Vance said, she’s not sure she would have done what the two teachers did. Perhaps, she said, she might have made a general announcement to the class about the GSA and hoped that the student would come. “Kids don’t necessarily remember they’re being monitored, and in a way, this sort of becomes a forced outing, no matter how good the teacher’s intentions were,” she said.
California bars educators from monitoring the social media of students without notifying students and parents, which Caldeira said she never did. “I do not know if part of the investigation will include checking to see if we have in fact gone into a student’s emails, Google Drive accounts or monitored their social media,” she said, “but it will come up with nothing.”
It’s not clear how long the investigation of the teachers will take. The district has said only that it selected Sacramento
law firm Van Dermyden Makus to conduct the probe.
In the meantime, supporters of the UBU club are concerned about the loss of what they see as a welcoming space for some students to discuss whatever they are going through, and they worry the controversy will create stress and potential stigma for vulnerable youth.
“The work that LGBTQ+ student groups, their advisers and allies do to foster community and safety among students takes lifesaving importance,” 38 local elected and community leaders wrote in an open letter to the district. “It is also why so many of us have watched the events unfold in the Spreckels Union School District that have led to the disbanding of the ‘You Be You’ LGBTQ+ student group with alarm.” Monterey County Supervisor Wendy Root Askew, whose office produced the letter, said the district’s response was “concerning,” especially the club’s suspension,
and pledged to “fight for their fundamental human rights.” But she pointed out that she’s also a parent of a young child — who attends another district — and understands how sensitive and complicated the issue can be for families.
“I know that I want my child to be safe at school, and I also know that I have expectations that I’m not going to be left in the dark about what’s happening on campus,” she said. “But the bottom line is the data tells us that our LGBTQ youth are at significantly higher rates of self-harm. If we care about the protection and well-being of our kids, we have to follow the data and ensure that they have safe places and safe people at school, at home and in the community.”
Jacob Agamao, the LGBTQ+ services coordinator at the Epicenter, a Salinas youth resource program, called the district’s actions “heartbreaking.”
“I know the value and the importance of these
clubs to students who really have nowhere else to go as far as acceptance of who they are, or maybe they’re afraid,” he said. “It’s sort of painful to see people speaking as though they’re speaking in defense of children when really they’re speaking in defense of their personal ethics, their religious beliefs — things that have nothing to do with the safety of the child themselves.” Like Askew, Agamao said he understood why parents would be worried that they might not know what’s going on in their child’s life at school, but that that doesn’t mean they have a right to it.
“I think our students have a right to certain privacies simply out of self-preservation,” he said. “If your child feels loved and accepted in their home, they’ll have no problem telling you these things.”
At the Dec. 15 public meeting, Spreckels school board members said they wanted to focus on community members being kind to one another as the investigation progressed.
“I want this board and the community to know that the author of this article frames issues facing transgender youth in terms of a war,” Scott said, referring to Shrier. “We are not at war. Everyone loses in a war. War is completely contrary to our core values of compassion, kindness and respect.”
Yet amid posters designed by students urging community members to “Color the world with kindness” and “Be a buddy not a bully,” board members had to repeatedly remind those packing the room to heed the slogans. The warnings went only so far, and people yelled at each other and the trustees.
Some speakers talked of the importance of granting space and support to LGBTQ students, and praised Caldeira and Baraki. A former student, Catherine Beck, told the gathering that during her time in the club, “We discussed a wide range of topics, always student-selected, from racism to disabilities to, yes, LGBTQ issues. However, this was never a secret to the school board, nor to the school administration.”
Some parents said it was the district that overstepped when it announced that school clubs in the future would be required to keep signin sheets, have parents sign permission slips and share “sensitive” materials with parents before showing them to students.
Others, though, said the teachers were “grooming” their students using invasive surveillance tactics and expressed frustration that the GSA had been secretive. Some people veered into rants about religion, critical race theory and mask mandates.
One parent, Jessica Konen, said Caldeira had kept her in the dark when her daughter wanted to start using different pronouns and a new name. “You took away my ability to parent my child, even before I had any knowledge,” Konen shouted. “I didn’t even get to show support. You asked for support. I didn’t get the chance.”
As she was pulled off the microphone by security enforcing the meeting’s three-minute time limit for speakers, Konen shouted, “I don’t care! Meet me outside!” as some in the crowd cheered her on.
Whatever their viewpoint, those at the meeting seemed united in their anger at the school district — either for taking too much action or not enough.
As they await the outcome of the investigation, Caldeira and Baraki said they now avoid leaving their homes. They are afraid that people in their small community might recognize them and berate or even attack them — a fear that Caldeira sees as ironic, given that their goal in the first place was to protect LGBTQ kids in a conservative community.
“We just try to provide simple, clean, straightforward answers without — shocking — judgment,” she said. “And look where it got me.”