On Oct. 14, 2015, the elementary school principal of a Minnesota charter school informed parents that in the coming days, the school would be taking steps to “support a student who is gender nonconforming.”
Their 5- and 6-year-old children, parents were told in an email, “will listen to various books that celebrate differences and will be teaching children about the beauty of being themselves.”
One of those books, the principal noted, would be “My Princess Boy,” a story that centers on a boy who sometimes likes to do traditional girl things like wear dresses.
In the email, the principal encouraged parents of kindergarten children to “have conversations at home about the appropriateness of comments or teasing relating to all protected classes,” specifically pertaining to gender identity.
Details regarding the gender non-conforming student at the school, Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul, Minn., were kept confidential. But shortly after that initial email went out, parents at Nova Classical Academy learned that the child was also in kindergarten.
Immediately, some parents raised concern about the issue of gender identity being introduced to their 5- and 6-year old children. The concept, they believed, is too complicated for kindergartners to grasp.
And although the school hadn’t yet announced any new restroom policies, parents were concerned about their children using bathrooms with students of the opposite sex. In their attempt to push back, parents grew frustrated with the school’s response. At least 10 students, The Daily Signal learned, transferred to another school.
One mother, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her daughter’s identity, said she transferred her child because the classmate was having a “traumatic” effect on her daughter.
“Our daughter—because she is a normal kindergartner who was raised in a family where we had some social norms regarding biological gender and sex—now she’s asking questions like, ‘How does a boy become a girl when they’re born with a penis?’ She has two brothers, so she’s wondering, how is this possible, as the boy is wearing a jumper and has ribbons and ponytails in his hair,” her mother said.
Another mother, whose daughter is still in the same class as the gender nonconforming child, described a similar effect. That mother also requested to remain anonymous.
“She said, ‘Mom, I think you can choose if you want to be a boy or a girl,’” the second mother said.
‘That Bothers Me’
Similar to how the debate over transgender rights has caused a culture war in states such as Washington and South Dakota, the situation at Nova Classical Academy also caused a rift in the tight-knit community.
The school is a competitive public charter school that consistently ranks high in school ratings. When it was granted its charter, Nova Classical Academy requested a waiver so that a majority of its school board members would be parents instead of educators. One goal of doing so, parents told The Daily Signal, was to foster parental involvement and oversight of curriculum.
“We as a school community go through processes that are very lengthy, but in the end it always ends up being a conversation and a win-win situation,” one mother said. “And this situation, this is not what happened.”
For example, this mother explained, deciding when to begin the gender and sex curriculum required “a long, painful process.”
Eventually, parents and educators agreed the program would begin in fifth grade, and address the topic of being transgender in 10th grade. But now, they thought, that decision was being flipped on its head, and the school was bypassing parental input to introduce these topics starting at a younger age.
Parents were divided—many fully supported the reading of “My Princess Boy” and the curriculum that would go along with it. Some of those supporters launched a petition drive in which they and others—some from outside communities—could speak out.
“I am in favor of using materials such as this as part of the curriculum,” wrote Stephanie Schweser. “Teaching and promoting tolerance, understanding, and inclusion will better our school community and our community beyond.”
“I fully support the reading of ‘My Princess Boy’ or another book that specifically addresses gender nonconformity,” added Josephine Chung on the same petition. “A book is a useful and necessary tool for educating our children.”
Those who objected were particularly concerned because Nova Classical Academy is a K-12 school. Although the school had not yet addressed bathroom policies, their 5- and 6-year-old children, some parents feared, might now be forced to share a bathroom with a senior of the opposite sex.
“We are in a K-12 school, and that bothers me—there are some bathrooms that are shared. So I could have my daughter in the bathroom and a senior,” the mother whose kindergartner still attends the school told The Daily Signal, adding:
“If we start to desensitize our children at a young age that it’s fine—and right now, I’m not worried that something bad is going to happen to her in her elementary school, but that she would get used to this. And eventually she could get put in a situation where she could be in harm’s way, because she’s innocently in the bathroom with someone who intends to cause harm.”
‘Life Before and After Beyoncé’
Two months ago, Dave and Hannah Edwards, the parents of the gender nonconforming student at Nova Classical Academy, went public with their story in an interview with radio host Jack Rice. During that interview, Hannah Edwards attempted to explain her son’s identity.
“[W]hen we ask him what he prefers, he says, ‘I’m a boy and in my heart I’m a girl.’ And sometimes he’ll say he’s half and half, which is something you put in your coffee, but I say OK, that’s great.”
Hannah Edwards said the change began around the age 2 after her son, Holden, watched Beyoncé perform at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show:
“I kind of think of it as life before and after Beyoncé. Pretty soon it turned into an everyday occurrence, wanting to watch this 10-minute halftime show. And he started tying his blankets on his head, and dancing like her, and watching his reflection in the fireplace glass. That was, I think, the first time I noticed. It started becoming less of ‘he thinks this is interesting’ and more of ‘I am being Beyoncé; I am being a girl.’
The Daily Signal attempted to speak with Gender Justice, a group that is working with the Edwards family. They did not respond to a request for comment.
In the radio interview, the Edwardses suggested Holden had been subject to bullying in the classroom, and thus, the gender curriculum was necessary. But the real problem, they said, stems from parents who objectied to the school’s handling of their child.
“I would say his teacher has been pretty integral in stopping the bullying, at least in the classroom. I know that he comes to school now in the jumper, and that’s within the last month,” Holden’s father, Dave Edwards, said during the interview. He added:
“I feel comfortable with what’s happening in his small, little classroom world. It’s these other parents coming in and objecting or starting petitions. And I think that really comes from a place of fear and ignorance on their part.”
‘Understanding Gender Diversity’
Eric Williams, the school’s executive director, confirmed to The Daily Signal that in December, Nova Classical Academy invited the president of the National Association of School Psychologists, Todd Savage, “to educate the staff and community about gender nonconforming and transgender students.”
Parents who attended the event and spoke with The Daily Signal said they thought the session came from, in one parent’s words, ” a very progressive perspective.”
During the session, Savage highlighted a number of “school issues” that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students face.
The father who eventually removed his daughter from kindergarten at Nova Classical Academy over the situation said he had “no problem” with the presentation but thought it fell short in addressing his personal concerns.
“He had some specifics about how transgender kids have been oppressed in the past, and I think they’re legitimate,” the father said of Savage. “But he didn’t present anything in ways of addressing the argument of how the issue could be damaging for the education, especially of pre-adolescent kids. He didn’t address that issue at all.”
In an attempt to learn more, parents who objected to the book “My Princess Boy” organized their own informational session with a conservative group, the Minnesota Family Council. Unlike the session with Savage, the school refused to associate itself with the event.
Multiple sources told The Daily Signal that advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons—affiliated with Out Front, Gender Justice, and Transforming Family—attended the session. Five minutes before the event ended, parents said, the LGBT advocates lined the hallways leading to the exit holding signs that read, “We love our transgender kids.”
“A piece of that was hard, because I just wanted to say I love transgender kids, too,” the father, who attended the meeting with an older daughter who continues to attend Nova Classical Academy, said. He added:
“This was so obviously orchestrated; their only purpose was to try to be intimidating. And my eighth-grade daughter was intimidated. It caused her stress and anxiety. And if you look at the definition of bullying, the irony of this whole thing is, that qualifies as bullying.”
‘No One’s Having That Conversation’
Four months after the lower school principal sent out the initial email, the situation is ongoing. In an attempt to quell concerns, Nova Classical Academy adopted an “emergency” policy for transgender and gender nonconforming students.
A parent at the school said that policy states:
1) Boys and girls may wear whichever uniform they want.
2) Students requesting access to a bathroom conforming to his or her gender identity will be granted or denied permission on a case-by-case basis.
3) Preferred gender pronouns also will be required on a case-by-case basis.
Some parents were unhappy with the temporary solution and called on the school to answer one simple question: Will their elementary school children run into a student of the opposite sex in bathrooms and locker rooms?
So far, the school administrators have evaded that question by telling parents in a Q&A handout that “no student or family has made that request.”
Other parents are asking the school more daunting question: What kind of impact does introducing the concept of transgender and gender identity have on their 5- and 6-year-old children?
“I don’t think anyone has taken the time to think about what are the developmental stages of each age bracket and how might that superimpose something that is not natural into their development?” the mother who removed her daughter from the school said. “That piece to me, as a mom, is really, really valuable. No one’s having that conversation.”
The mother added:
“If physiologists and medical doctors don’t quite understand gender fluidity, then why do we try to impose this on people who are just trying to figure out how to tie their shoe? It’s not fair. It’s not just.”
The Daily Signal learned that as of the last school board meeting, some students have left the school since the dispute over “My Princess Boy” began. And for the first time in Nova Classical Academy’s 12-year history, applications were down significantly .
In an email to The Daily Signal, Dr. Eric Williams, executive director of Nova Classical Academy, sought to explain the decline.
While it is correct that a handful of prospective parents have indicated that the reason they did not re-apply to Nova for the 2016-17 school year or declined offers of enrollment was due to the gender nonconformity issue at the school, there are multiple reasons that have contributed more substantially to the lower number of applications received at this time.
For the first time in a almost 10 years, Nova did not host an annual School Showcase/Open House at our school this year– an event that typically draws 200+ prospective parents and their children. Also, this year we chose not to host weekly tours throughout the fall and early winter for families of children entering kindergarten through grade eight. These decisions were made almost exclusively on the basis of allocation of staff resources and the long waiting lists the school has year after year.
Although the school eventually replaced “My Princess Boy” with poems portraying a similar message, the three families who spoke with The Daily Signal said they fear there’s no turning back.
“It seems like they’re very influenced by the way the culture is moving,” said the mother whose daughter remains enrolled.
She and her husband said they intend to “stick it out,” but they’re “trying to decide at what point is just too much.”
“The daily influence of this little boy, who very much looks like a girl, all the accessories … they’re really doing it up with him,” she said. “But for now we’re feeling convicted to stay and be a part of the work of making sure that we did everything we could do save this school.”
Since publication, this article has been updated to reflect the number of students who transferred out of Nova Classical Academy because of “nonconformity issues.”