Parental rights were discussed during the Feb. 15 board meeting of the Ballard Elementary School District.
The discussion originally was about a recent incident in the fourth-grade classroom and evolved into a broader talk about parental rights.
The incident happened when — against the advice of the teacher, Mandy Young, but with the approval of Principal/Superintendent Pam Rennick — the parents of a child in the class spoke to the class about their child’s chosen pronouns and name.
This talk happened without alerting any of the other parents in the classroom beforehand.
This child has been wearing dresses to school since kindergarten and has never been treated any differently.
The child’s father, Sean Conroy, is a member of the school board, and the mother is Cailen Conroy, president of the Ballard Elementary School PTA.
Ms. Rennick, principal of Ballard Elementary School and superintendent of the single-school district in the Santa Ynez Valley, broached the issue from the perspective of student privacy.
“The school handled the situation as best it could in accordance with the student’s right to privacy act and the California anti-discrimination laws, and as concerns were raised, we did consult our legal counsel to make sure that we did act in accordance,” Ms. Rennick said during the school board meeting.
James Simpson is acting as legal counsel for Ballard Elementary.
“He did, in fact, say that we had acted according to the law and according to anti-discrimination laws and if we had handled it differently, we might have encroached upon student privacy or anti-discrimination laws,” Ms. Rennick said. “I know that it has been concerning and that it has been questioned, but I just want everyone to understand that there are very specific student privacy laws that we have to follow as a public school, and so in this case I believe that we did.”
The first public commenter was the mother of the child in question.
“I want to take a couple of minutes to address the situation at hand and set the record straight that what was said in the classroom was not what people think was said,” Mrs. Conroy said. “My child simply wanted her classmates to know her pronouns and her name. That was it, nothing further. It took less than 60 seconds probably … She was so ready to do this because she felt so safe in her community.
“The kids in her class have been so, so supportive and loving, and as a result, she has never been happier,” Mrs. Conroy said. “It was like a giant weight was lifted off her shoulders, and everything was better because her friends now knew who she was. I want to thank Mrs. Rennick and all the teachers and the staff at Ballard for creating such a supportive atmosphere for my child to thrive.
“I can’t tell you the difference this has made in helping her find the happiness that was missing before…” Mrs. Conroy continued. “I am so sorry that some parents felt ambushed and perhaps had conversations that they weren’t ready to have with their kids, I really am.
“But at the end of the day, we were protecting our child’s privacy, particularly on such a personal, tough matter. So I hope that all the parents in this room can understand that …Whether you agree with me or not, please just remember that I am a mom doing everything I can to keep my children safe and happy.”
Carla Ford, another public commenter, said: “I do want to thank Pam Rennick for being our fearless leader and for protecting our students and being so wonderful. I want to thank the Conroys for everything they have done for our school and for how much time they have put into our school … Whatever you decide to teach your children in your home, I hope that you consider kindness as the most important thing …”
Another commenter, Rebecca Smith, shared a different perspective.
“What happened in the fourth-grade classroom is an upsetting situation,” she said. “There are several families now that have voiced their concerns, I know Pam is aware of that. The board has heard from some of them.
“This is by no means a privacy issue as described by Pam. The issue doesn’t lie in a child changing his name. The issue is that Pam brought in two parents to discuss a controversial topic with a class of students without anyone’s consent,” Ms. Smith said. “I think it is very important that the board thoroughly consider the way in which this situation was mishandled.
“There are only two possibilities as to how Pam Rennick decided to handle this situation. The first is that she made an influential decision with an agenda in mind, or she was completely naive and did not realize what would come from her controversial decision,” Ms. Smith said. “Either explanation of the decision is unacceptable. This is the leader of our school, the one who needs to be making decisions that are best benefitting our children, their families, and our teachers. The decision was reckless and concerning and an abuse of power was shown by Pam and Sean Conroy.
“I find it appropriate that Sean Conroy resigns after seeing his lack of discernment in this situation. As for Pam, there is now an irreversible lack of trust in your ability to make decisions for our children,” Ms. Smith said. “You broke the trust between yourself and a teacher who gave you a warning that this was inappropriate. That teacher was put in an awful position, one she never should have been put in.
“Our teachers need to be listened to when they voice concern, and in this case, Mrs. Young was completely disregarded. With that said, I am proposing that our school create a parent’s rights policy. I am asking that the policy be put on the March agenda as an action item …”
Ms. Smith referred to a parent’s rights policy that was unanimously voted in recently by the Orange County Board of Education.
“I strongly believe it’s what we need here at Ballard,” said Ms. Smith. She provided copies of the policy to the board. “I am asking for complete transparency to be put in place in our classrooms. Parents need to be notified any time an outside person is brought into our classroom …
“If you can’t send an email about what is being taught to our children, then you absolutely should not be discussing it with them …”
Several other commenters spoke on both sides of the issue.