Brian Lopez

Parental rights? This Texas school district may let teachers reject kid’s pronouns — even if parents approve

"A North Texas school district may let teachers reject children’s pronouns — even if parents approve of them" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Teachers will not be forced to address students by the pronouns that match their gender identity even if a parent asks them to and transgender students will be barred from playing sports if two new policies targeting gender identity are approved Monday night by the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District board.

It’s the latest move by a school board to more formally exclude transgender youth in schools.

The Grapevine-Colleyville district, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, just added two members to its seven-member school board in May. Both received donations from the Christian cellphone company Patriot Mobile, which has targeted the defeat of any school board candidate who endorses what they call “critical race theory” and ones who support books about LGBTQ identities, saying that kids were exposed to “explicit, ‘woke’ books.”

None of the seven GCISD school board members immediately responded to a request for comment.

The pronoun measure before Grapeville-Colleyville ISD states that “the district will not promote, require, or encourage the use of titles or pronoun identifiers for students, teachers or any other persons in any manner that is inconsistent with the biological sex of such person” as listed on a person’s birth certificate.

And if a student, parent or legal guardian asks the teacher to address the student with pronouns that match their gender identity, the district policy — if approved — will leave it to the teacher’s “discretion” as to whether a teacher will do so.

The pronoun policy is one of several proposals under consideration involving how race and gender will be addressed in this school district.

A separate proposal also prohibits students from participating or competing in athletic events that are “designated for the biological sex opposite to the student’s biological sex.” District staff also cannot teach or promote “gender fluidity,” which is the idea that one’s gender identity is not fixed and can extend beyond male and female. Staff also cannot teach or talk about sexual orientation and gender identity until kids are in the sixth grade.

And a third proposal before the Grapevine-Colleyville board Monday night relates to incorporating Senate Bill 3, the state’s so-called “critical race theory” law into a districtwide policy.

This is seemingly the first school district to take this formal step. Since the bill was passed last year, there has been confusion about how the law should be applied. School administrators across the state have asked the Texas Education Agency for guidance on the law. The agency’s response is for school districts to just continue teaching the current social studies curriculum.

SB 3 was crafted to keep “critical race theory” out of schools, with restrictions on how to talk about slavery and eventually sending teachers to civics training. Critical race theory is the idea that racism is embedded in legal systems and not limited to individuals. It’s an academic discipline taught at the university level. But it has become a common phrase used by conservatives to include anything about race taught or discussed in public secondary schools.

The Grapevine-Colleyville board proposal states that teachers and administrators cannot discuss critical race theory or what they have called “systemic discrimination ideologies.” The board proposal, like the state law, would prohibit requiring students to read the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, a collection of essays that centered on how slavery and the contributions of Black Americans shaped the United States.

The discussion of such policies comes almost a year after James Whitfield, a Black principal in the district, was put on leave and then eventually resigned after being accused of teaching “critical race theory.” In 2020, Whitfield emailed a letter to parents and staff in which he wrote that systemic racism is “alive and well” after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Protect Texas Kids, a conservative nonprofit organization, is rallying support for the school board meeting, posting on Facebook that conservatives must come out as they expect Democrats to pack the meeting.

“They will be voting on great new conservative policies that will set precedent for other districts,” the organization posted.

Disclosure: The New York Times has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Texas Republicans are trying to sell school choice measures. Rural conservatives aren’t buying

"Texas Republicans are trying to sell school choice measures, but rural conservatives aren’t buying" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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As a Texas school superintendent, Adrain Johnson is no stranger to the struggles small, rural public schools face, from trying to recruit teachers, especially after more than two years of navigating school during a global pandemic, to a general lack of resources. And now, after the school shooting in Uvalde, there’s a renewed conversation about campus security.

With so many problems to solve, Johnson, who oversees the Hearne Independent School District northwest of College Station, doesn’t understand why state lawmakers’ to-do lists heading into next year’s legislative session seem to focus more on school choice over something like school safety.

“There always seems to be a school choice debate every legislative year, and I’m not afraid of that. I think that debating is good. That’s part of democracy,” Johnson said.

But he also wonders why public schools always take a back seat to the pursuit of policies that could diminish them.

“Why not make it imperative to support the local school district?” he said.

Instead, from where he stands, the talk in Austin is already focused on school choice, the broad term applied to a host of taxpayer-funded alternatives to sending a child to the local public school.

[With rural Texas watching, Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke dig in on school vouchers fight]

Although the Texas Legislature doesn’t meet for another five months, Gov. Greg Abbott has voiced support for public school alternatives. Abbott has said he supports parents’ “choice to send their children to any public school, charter school or private school with state funding following the student.” And Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who will face off against Abbott in November, has also joined the debate, running ads asking people to “reject Greg Abbott’s radical plan to defund” public schools.

The Republican Party of Texas has listed school choice as a legislative priority, and pro-school choice groups like the Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation will also push for school choice legislation.

But in the northeastern corner of the state, Rep. Gary VanDeaver, a Republican whose district includes 30 rural school districts, is still unconvinced. He was one of several lawmakers who helped kill school choice legislation in 2017. He said one of the concerns he’s hearing from parents is that they’re paying property taxes, which fund public schools, but have opted for either home schooling or sending their kids to private school.

“I prefer to reduce their property taxes, so they have the option of spending that money any way they choose, whether it be alternative education choices, saving for college or purchasing a new car,” VanDeaver said.

Texas has passed some school choice measures. VanDeaver points to the approval of the state’s charter school system in the 1990s and giving students in low-performing schools the ability to transfer out of a district.

“Proponents of expanding school choice options often say the money should follow the student,” VanDeaver said. “Current Texas law already does that if a student transfers to another public school, including a charter school.”

From his vantage point, VanDeaver has good reason to be concerned. In smaller Texas cities and towns, there’s far less “choice” for rural students. Outside of large metro areas, private schools are few and far between. Many rural private schools have religious affiliations. And VanDeaver has been informed that the religious private schools in his area are uninterested in public money. He also worries about the damage to the local public school district a voucher program could cause.

“This sense of community is what makes Texas great, and I would hate to see anything like a voucher program destroy this community spirit,” he said.

Conservative efforts to pass school choice measures have failed largely because there are few private schools or charter schools as alternatives outside the state’s larger urban areas. Also, the public school systems are a large economic and employment driver for most small towns.

In Texas, schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled and the daily attendance on campus. Schools receive a base allotment of $6,160 per student each year. Texas is also home to more rural students than any other state, and its schools are funded through property taxes.

Proponents say more school choice options help lower-income families afford better education. Opponents believe school choice policies weaken the public education system because they can result in public school dollars going to private schools, which are largely unregulated and therefore unaccountable.

In addition to vouchers, lawmakers could consider education savings accounts, or ESAs, where the state places taxpayer dollars into accounts for families to be used for educational expenses such as private school tuition. But the funds can be also used for tutoring, online classes and even higher education expenses.

Then there are tax credit scholarships, which allow individuals or businesses to receive full or partial tax credits when they donate to scholarship funds that are then awarded to families to enroll in private schools.

Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association, said either a tax credit or an ESA option would work well for Texas. Her organization is against a voucher policy.

“We’re about 20 years behind, and so I do think there are a lot of things that we could do to improve options — education options — for parents and kids in Texas,” Colangelo said.

But the struggle, again, will be convincing rural lawmakers that school choice is the way to go.

State Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo told The Texas Tribune last week that he would oppose anything that would take away resources from Texas’ public schools.

Bill Tarleton, executive director of the Texas Rural Education Association, worries that private schools won’t allow for the same transparency and accountability because they don’t have elected school boards. He also questions whether any school choice legislation would really benefit all students because private schools can pick and choose whom they accept.

“Public schools are the only ones that have to educate all students,” Tarleton said.

VanDeaver said he’s not one to shut the door on any policy and looks forward to the debate next session. He wants to see a better accountability system created for private schools receiving the money.

“As conservatives, we expect it from our public schools,” he said. “We need to know that we’re getting bang for our buck for every educational dollar, wherever it’s spent.”

Disclosure: The Texas Private Schools Association and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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For the students who survived the Uvalde shooting uninjured, trauma will take time to heal

For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

UVALDE — Eight days after surviving the shooting at Robb Elementary, 9-year-old Zayin Zuniga returned to the school grounds to visit the memorial for his slain classmates.

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Zayin and his mom approached one of the 21 crosses that were set on the school’s lawn to honor each of the victims killed last week: the one for Eliahna Amyah Garcia, 9, whom Zayin called Ellie. After a school dance at Robb, Zayin decided he wanted to give Ellie a gift. He begged his mom to get him a ring that he could give her. He was never able to do it.

Zayin was in Room 111 during the shooting, one of the two conjoined classrooms where the gunman holed up. He recalls glass shattering and seeing bullet casings on the classroom floor as he and other students hid behind his teacher’s desk. Zayin and other kids were able to escape through a window.

“Everybody was scared,” he said.

Zayin often retreats to hug his mom as he recalls the scene. He can’t hear loud noises without thinking it’s the sound of another gunman trying to hurt people, said his mother, Mariah Zuniga.

The Zuniga family didn’t suffer any injuries or deaths that day, but invisible wounds linger in the form of trauma. Zayin doesn’t feel safe going back to Robb and isn’t ready to return to school in general. Research and studies suggest that child survivors will feel anxious after shootings, but talking to them about it and making them feel safe is needed to help them heal.

Research and experts also found that if there aren’t enough mental health resources for the survivors, witnesses and community, the trauma can impact education and lead to absences, declining grades and students choosing not to go to college.

Zayin and his family were at the Uvalde County Fairplex on Wednesday, an event center and indoor arena where organizations are offering counseling and mental health services to families and students affected by the shooting.

Zuniga said her son will need a professional therapist to talk to about the tragedy. When she first spoke to Zayin about his feelings after what happened last week, he burst into tears.

“I went to the counseling because I didn’t know what to really say to him after something like this,” she said.

Zayin Zuniga, 10, gazes at piles of flowers and balloons left in front of crosses at Robb Elementary in Uvalde on June 1, 2022, memorializing the 19 children and two teachers fatally shot after a gunman entered the building the week before.

Zayin Zuniga visits Eliahna Amyah Garcia’s memorial, left, on June 1. Flowers and balloons surround crosses at Robb Elementary in Uvalde. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Seeking ways to heal

Marcos Guzman, 12, who graduated from Robb Elementary last year, said he knew some of the kids and teachers who were killed last week. He doesn’t understand the senseless acts that left his peers dead, especially in Uvalde.

“I’m sad,” Guzman said in Spanish. “I just want to cry.”

As Uvalde grieves, local, state and federal officials are also looking for ways to help the community heal.

Texas Health and Human Services is overseeing the state’s crisis response in Uvalde, and therapists have been offering help in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. But services will also be needed for much longer to respond to its lasting emotional effects on both the surviving children and the families who are grieving, said Dr. Steven R. Pliszka, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UT Health San Antonio and program administrator.

“At some point, we’re going to need to transition from this acute response to working with people over the long term,” Pliszka said. “After the acute situation settles down, that’s usually when people find that they really need to return for help.”

A state-funded telehealth program for youth is offering services to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District to help identify students and families in mental or emotional crises and give them counseling or therapy services they may not otherwise have access to, Pliszka said.

The Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program funnels resources and expertise into a network of doctors, counselors and other professionals at universities in 12 regions across the state to respond to children identified in schools as showing signs of distress.

“I have reached out to the superintendent, and if they wish to respond, we can certainly enroll them immediately. There’s no barrier whatsoever,” Pliszka said.

Some officials have suggested that Robb Elementary should not be a reminder of the shooting and proposed that the school be torn down and replaced with a new building.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, told San Antonio television station KSAT there is hope that the federal government will provide a grant to rebuild the school. He said President Joe Biden, who visited Uvalde on Sunday, told him, “We’re going to look to raze that school and build a new one.”

“I can’t tell you how many little children that I’ve talked to that don’t want to go back into that building. They’re just traumatized. They’re just destroyed,” Gutierrez told KSAT.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said he believes the same should be done.

“I don’t think anybody’s plans are but to tear that building down,” McLaughlin told KXAS-TV. “I would never ask, expect a child to ever have to walk in those doors ever, ever again. That building needs to be gone.”

The school district’s superintendent announced Wednesday that students and teachers won’t return to Robb in the fall and instead will relocate to other campuses.

Generations of Uvalde residents have gone to Robb Elementary, which has served the community since 1955 and has been the site of momentous progress for the mostly Latino town of about 15,000. In the 1970s, Mexican American families staged a walkout to make the school more inclusive.

The school holds sentimental value for many of the city’s residents, but that shouldn’t stop officials from demolishing and building a new school, said Uvalde resident Dolores Contreras, 77.

Contreras said she went to Robb as a child, along with some of her siblings. Her children and grandchildren attended the school, too. But now, helping the community heal should be the priority.

“It should come down,” she said. “Kids don’t feel safe.”

Other schools across the country have been demolished after mass shootings. Santa Fe High School near Houston; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; and Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, have either renovated or built new buildings with features like bullet-resistant walls and windows.

Zayin and his mother don’t want to go back to Robb, either. Zuniga, who moved to Uvalde a year ago, said they have a lot to think about before deciding where Zayin will continue his education.

“None of my kids want to go back,” she said. “It’s just so scary to think about something like this happening again.”

Zayin Zuniga, 10, holds his hand out to show a matching ring he gifted to his crush Ellie Garcia, one of the 21 people who died when a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School last week, in Ulvade on June 1, 2022.

Zayin Zuniga shows his ring that matches the one he left at Ellie Garcia’s memorial. Credit: Kaylee Greenlee Beal for The Texas Tribune

Fears that won’t vanish easily

The road to recovery will be long for students who survived the shooting and for their parents.

Zuniga said it will be hard to forget the fear she felt when she first learned there was an active shooter at her children’s school. She couldn’t grasp what was happening. She was in San Antonio when she first got a text about the incident and raced to make the nearly 80-mile drive back to the school.

Zuniga has another child that goes to Robb. She was in the cafeteria and was able to get to a safe house quickly. She didn’t know that Zayin had been in one of the classrooms the gunman attacked until they had reunited.

“Being able to see them again, it’s like you’re so thankful and grateful,” she said. “And you don’t want to take that for granted because there’s other families that don’t get to see their kids anymore.”

Wherever her children go to school next, Zuniga said she will meticulously look through its safety protocols. The family might move somewhere else. She’s even considering home schooling. All the options are on the table.

“I don’t know if we’re gonna end up relocating. We just moved here,” she said.

For the first couple of nights after the shooting, Zayin stayed with his mom in her bedroom. They really couldn’t sleep. The events would still play over in his head, she said. They would take melatonin to try to get some rest.

The two of them visited the memorial at Robb on Wednesday to start the healing process. Zuniga finally got Zayin the ring he wanted to give to Ellie and placed it on her memorial.

He now wears a matching one to always remember her.

Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this story.

"For the children who survived the Uvalde shooting uninjured, trauma will take time to heal" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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