Artillery Row

Safeguarding nightmare

The problem with “teacher activism”

On 16 December 2021 I saw a very distressing video of a mother, Jessica Konen, speaking at a school board meeting in Salinas, California, objecting to the school going behind her back to counsel her suicidal 12-year-old daughter about her claimed “transgender status”. The anger, pain and misery in her voice was evident.

Local press reported that two teachers at the Buena Vista Middle School in Salinas were recorded coaching other teachers how to conceal the nature of LGTBQ clubs from parents.

The teachers led a workshop about how to run a “Gay-Straight Alliance” club in “conservative communities” at a California Teachers Association conference held in October, called “Beyond the Binary: Identity & Imagining Possibilities”. The teachers described the obstacles they faced as “activist teachers” to conceal the activities of GSA clubs from parents. These teachers were later suspended pending an independent third-party investigation.

“Gay-Straight Alliance” clubs are described by the ACLU as:

Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, are student-led and student-organized school clubs that aim to create a safe, welcoming, and accepting school environment for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

No one could reasonably object to a school making efforts to ensure that its pupils — regardless of their sexuality or claimed gender identity — are able to learn in an atmosphere free from abuse or intimidation. This incident in Salinas reveals serious concerns that such clubs may go much further than merely supporting children, but cross a line into “affirming” young children with transgender identities and deliberately concealing this information from their parents.

Given that this path of affirmation appears to lead inexorably to medical and possibly surgical “transition”, and given what we know of the sparse evidence base for the efficacy of such treatments, most parents would be extremely concerned to think these matters were being discussed in secret by medically unqualified teachers with their 12-year-old children.

Konen had had some discussions with her daughter about being bisexual, nothing more. But, at a meeting with the school, she was accused by a teacher of not being “emotionally supportive” of her daughter, who was to be called by a new name, use male pronouns and use the unisex restroom at school.

“It made me feel very, very small as a parent. I was unaware of anything. Not one time had she mentioned to me ‘Oh, I think that I want to change my name,’ or ‘I’m transgender’ or anything. Nothing. I only heard bisexual one time, and that was it,” Konen said.

Teachers are not doctors, psychologists or psychiatrists

Within a few days of that meeting, Konen was informed by the local police department that a complaint had been made to Child Protective Services (CPS). Police asked her two children if they wanted to be removed from the home. The CPS took no further action and did not insist that Konen address her daughter by masculine pronouns. After several more meetings Konen then discovered that the school were aware her daughter had searched online for information about suicide. The school never told her. Her daughter now attends a different school where she uses her female name and female pronouns and Konen believes she is doing much better with no one “pressuring” her.

This appears to be happening across the state of California, but I have no doubt that if “teacher activism” is not checked, it will be adopted in the UK. There are certainly worrying indications from various attempts to provide “guidance” to schools and social workers that the UK would find fertile soil for such campaigning teachers.

There are real dangers in all this for parents, teachers, and children in the UK. The family justice system operates according to some fundamental principles — that the welfare of the child is paramount and children under 16 can’t be presumed to have the capacity to consent as if an adult. Their “Gillick competence” must be assessed.

Given children who are not Gillick competent inherently lack capacity to make serious decisions, the role of parents as protectors in exercising their parental responsibility to promote the child’s welfare, cannot be downplayed, and must certainly never be ignored, absent explicit sanction from the court. Any adult working with children who doesn’t understand or who dismisses the importance of “Gillick competence” and parental responsibility is acting potentially unlawfully and risks doing harm to the child they claim to protect.

The younger the child in question, the more serious this is

Most parents, most of the time, can be assumed to have their child’s best interests at heart. And of course, there are some parents who do not, who are neglectful or even deliberately abusive. Teachers are at the front line in safeguarding children, able to spot a child who is bruised or subdued and to make appropriate referrals to keep them safe. But teachers are not doctors, psychologists or psychiatrists; they have no competence to diagnose a child with gender dysphoria and certainly no business in keeping parents in the dark unless there are some very serious concerns about those parents indeed. In which case referral needs to be made immediately to local children’s services.

Activists need to be aware of the distinction between a sexuality and a “gender identity”. The first does not require either medication or surgery to maintain it and a child is unlikely to “grow out” of feelings of sexual attraction. By contrast, the majority of children with “gender identity” issues left to undergo a normal puberty desist from any further desire to “change sex”.

There is a broader principle at play: the special importance of families which has long been recognised and protected by domestic and international law.

As was set out by Lady Hale in para 72 of The Christian Institute & Ors v The Lord Advocate (Scotland) [2016] UKSC 51 (28 July 2016):

Many articles in the UNCRC acknowledge that it is the right and responsibility of parents to bring up their children. Thus article 3(2) requires States Parties, in their actions to protect a child’s wellbeing, to take into account the rights and duties of his or her parents or other individuals legally responsible for him or her; article 5 requires States Parties to respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, other family or community members or others legally responsible for the child to provide appropriate direction and guidance to the child in the exercise of his or her rights under the Convention; article 14(2) makes similar provision in relation to the child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; article 27(2) emphasises that the parents have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capabilities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development;

And in para 73:

Individual differences are the product of the interplay between the individual person and his upbringing and environment. Different upbringings produce different people. The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world. Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way.

I would therefore expect to see any guidance directed at the safety and welfare of children to give due consideration to both Gillick competence and parental responsibility. A failure to do so risks diluting the effectiveness of advice around safeguarding and is potentially unlawful. The younger the child in question, the more serious this is.

This is not to disrespect or downplay the importance of teachers in the safeguarding of children; but safeguarding concerns around transitioning children need careful assessment and involve many issues. Parents must not be shut out of this assessment and must not be assumed homophobic or transphobic simply because they express concern for their children or are “politically conservative”. Teachers must accept the limits of their expertise and the rule of law. Otherwise, they allow activist zeal to pose a risk of real harm to the children they claim to support and protect.

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