Education

‘Vile,’ ‘horrible’ reactions to Gender Unicorn take Denair school leaders on wild ride

Everything covered in a handout called “The Gender Unicorn,” which was distributed by a Denair Middle School science teacher to his students on the first day of class this year, falls within the curriculum standards set by the state for sexual health education.

That hasn’t stopped people from lambasting the teacher, school administrators and Denair Unified School District leaders by phone, email and social media and at a public meeting Tuesday. A quick scan of tweets and Facebook posts indicates critics are weighing in from far beyond Denair, and even beyond the United States.

Superintendent Terry Metzger, who joined the district in July 2018, said some of what she’s heard and read is “horrible” and vile.” Among the milder comments on Twitter have been things like “Protect youths’ minds, “CA is sick” and “Parents should not stand for this nonsense. Teachers should know their place — teach reading, writing and arithmetic only.”

The firestorm was ignited when a Denair Middle School parent posted on Facebook on Aug. 7 that her stepson brought home the sheet, which includes a very simple graphic about gender identity, gender expression and sexual and emotional attraction. The parent asked that the post be shared, which succeeded in getting more than 360 shares just from her page.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had” since the post and a Modesto Bee article that followed the next day,” Metzger said by phone Wednesday morning. Most concerns she’s heard from locals have been less about curriculum and more about the handout, its use with middle schoolers and whether it was an appropriate topic for science class or the first day of school.

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The short answer is that while the content is appropriate — required, even — for seventh- and eighth-graders, it was a mistake for the second-year teacher to use it in his science class as part of a getting-acquainted exercise, Metzger said. The teacher didn’t seek permission, and even if he had, the superintendent said there probably is no circumstance under which distributing it would have been approved.

Part of the problem is “The Gender Unicorn” looks like a worksheet, she said. “Even though the teacher didn’t ask the kids to fill it out, by its appearance it looks like it should be filled out. I don’t think that was the teacher’s intent.”

What was his intent? The teacher didn’t respond to an email seeking comment, but Metzger said that last year, Luis Davila Alvarado introduced himself to students by his preferred pronoun, Mx., without explanation, which raised a lot of questions.

Clearing air on Mx.

Mx., pronounced “mix,” is used as a title for those who do not identify as being of a particular gender, or for people who simply don’t want to be identified by gender, according to dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster. “Though the earliest print evidence dates to 1977, the word has only recently become popular.”

Alvarado did not correct students if they called him Mr. or Miss or Ms. It’s common for students not even to use courtesy titles, Metzger said, so some called him by just his last name.

The superintendent said that this year, the teacher used the handout in an effort to “get out ahead” of any confusion. He was letting students know, “This is why I use this title, but my gender identity allows me to be comfortable with all of these titles.”

When a relatively small but vocal group of residents confronted Metzger on Tuesday night at the Denair Municipal Advisory Council meeting, which she regularly attends, she heard complaints that the teacher insisted students call him by the title Mx. “That’s not supported by the conversations I’ve had with kids,” she said.

On this entire incident, the uproar seems to be among adults, the superintendent said. From what she’s observed and heard from staff, “The kids aren’t talking about this, there’s no buzz,” she said.

“Our young people today, certainly people in their 20s and below, view gender as a much more fluid thing” than earlier generations, Metzger continued, “They’re not confused about sex assigned at birth, but gender identity is different. Look at youth culture today, they accept everyone, however kids want to express themselves. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but as a person who works with young people, that’s what I see. Not just in Denair, but all over the place.”

Supporting that claim is the fact that in 2015, Anry Fuentes became the first openly transgender cheerleader in Stanislaus County when she made the team at Denair High. She still was publicly identifying as a boy named Henry when she was accepted to the squad in April of that year, according to a report on Seventeen.com, but her teammates didn’t bat an eye when she later transitioned.

Classmates even helped her raise money for the uniform. “No one has ever made me feel weird or like I shouldn’t be there,” she told People magazine. “They’re really supportive.”

Right material, wrong place

Perhaps unknown to most parents, the content of the Gender Unicorn handout is consistent with the curriculum required by the California Department of Education — but for sexual health education, not science class.

The requirements of the groundbreaking Healthy Youth Act enacted in 2016 include that schools teach age-appropriate and medically accurate sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention. The law also notes that parents and guardians have the responsibility for “imparting values regarding human sexuality to their children.”

The law generated significant controversy and is considered to be one of the most all-inclusive sex education laws in the country. Parents may choose for their children to not attend the sex-ed lessons, but children can’t be opted out of lessons that include LGBTQ+ people in other contexts, such as a history class.

Lessons on birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, sex trafficking, sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as information specifically geared to students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning, LGBTQ, are mandated by the law. A minimum of 10 hours of lessons must be given to students starting in seventh grade, including once in middle school and once in high school. Sex ed and HIV prevention lessons can be provided to elementary school students but aren’t required. Abstinence can be part of the curriculum, but abstinence-only is not an acceptable approach.

“Districts must teach to the state-adopted standards in each subject area,” Lisa Tiwater, assistant superintendent of instructional support services for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, told The Bee in an email. “The standards only tell the districts what to teach. The districts have local control over how to teach the standards. Districts typically purchase published materials from a suggested list that has been vetted by educator committees to assure the materials meet standards. The California Department of Education also provides support in the how to teach the standards in what we call a curriculum framework. These frameworks include guidance and lesson examples.”

The publisher Denair Unified uses for its main health curriculum is Pearson, Metzger said. To deliver its sexual health and HIV/AIDS instruction to seventh- through 12th-graders, she said, her district works with the Turlock-based community-outreach organization Check the Facts. “We believe they cover all of the standards well, they know our community and do a good job of presenting the information factually and neutrally.”

Read the Check the Facts Jr. High Curriculum Overview

Parents have an opportunity to review sexual health instruction materials a few weeks before the lessons are taught. In Denair, parents who do not want their children to receive sexual health instruction at school can opt out by letting the teacher know in writing, the superintendent said. If they don’t give permission, their children do an alternate health-related assignment while the lessons are being taught. “I don’t have statistics for Denair Middle School, but at the high school level, very few parents review the material and only one student has opted out in the last four years,” Metzger said.

On the importance of sexual health education in schools, she said students are bombarded with information from social media and as a result can feel a lot of stress. Often they struggle to separate fact from fiction. “It’s healthy to talk in schools about the issues they have questions about or are facing out in the world,” Metzger said. “There are appropriate times, places and ways to discuss these topics.”

Because handing out the Gender Unicorn sheet in science class was not the right way and place, she and DMS Principal Amanda Silva spoke with Alvarado about why it was a poor decision. On whether the teacher received any disciplinary action, she said that’s a private matter between Alvarado and the district.

The superintendent said she welcomes parents getting involved in the district and their children’s schools. “I hope parents will consider joining a school site council or attending district meetings to be active participants in the decision-making processes.”

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Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.
ChrisAnna Mink is pediatrician and health reporter for The Modesto Bee. She covers children’s health in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley. Her position is funded through the financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with The GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of her work.
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