Cambridge School Officials Sought To Stop Notifying Parents When Students Make Discrimination Complaints

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Cambridge School Committee members considered striking a requirement that parents be notified if their child makes a discrimination complaint, before abandoning the idea.

The requirement to notify parents is in the school’s non-discrimination policy, which school officials were updating earlier this month. The primary concern in removing the passages about notifying parents was “privacy for students, in particular, LGBTQIA+ students,” said school committee vice chairman Rachel Weinstein during the school committee meeting on Tuesday, August 9, while summing up points sent by fellow committee member Akriti Bhambi, who did not attend the meeting.

Weinstein, Bhambi, and Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui sponsored the motion.

The seven-member elected school committee oversees the city’s public schools. The mayor is the chairman.

One of the passages supporters of the motion wanted removed states:  “If the individual filing the complaint of discrimination is under the age of eighteen (18), the school will notify the parents/guardians/caregivers of the student before beginning the investigation.”

School committee members eventually rejected the motion to remove the passage, however, when during the course of the meeting they discovered the proposed policy change would likely violate Massachusetts state law.

Attorney Maureen MacFarlane, who acts as legal counsel for the Cambridge School Committee, noted that state law requires school officials to “notify the parent if there are any issues or concerns that happen in school whether it is a bullying issue, a discrimination issue, a fight between two students — no matter what.”

MacFarlane added that there is “balance in the tension” when it comes to situations involving a student disclosing his gender identity at school but not to his parents.

In such a case, MacFarlane said, “you do disclose the issue that there was an instance of bullying, there was an instance of discrimination, but you don’t disclose all of the details. You try to have the conversation with the parent without disclosing the details that it’s based on a gender identity issue.” 

“Obviously, the other piece of the guidance is to have that conversation with the student and support the student so that perhaps that disclosure can happen separate from, in addition to, simultaneously with the issue that is of concern that is happening, but you cannot not tell the parent of an underage child that something is going on with their child in the school,” MacFarlane added.

The state guidance on this subject corresponds to MacFarlane’s comments, especially “Guidance on Notifying Parents When a Student Has Been Bullied Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity/Expression,” which states that parents are to be notified “promptly.”  

The guidance, issued by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, also says that “school officials should remember that parents of LGBT students may not be aware of their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. In such cases, students may have grave concerns about their parents’ response to learning that they have been targets of bullying related to sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, and feel that this information should not be shared with their parents.” 

Later on, the guidance reminds local school officials that they “should be aware that reporting the details of a bullying incident might inadvertently disclose the sexual orientation or gender identity/expression of an LGBT student to his/her parents or to the public. Unintended consequences, such as familial rejection or family conflict, should be considered.”

Earlier this year, on April 12, two parents in the western Massachusetts town of Ludlow, Stephen Foote and Marissa Silvestri, sued in federal court, alleging that their two adolescent children were encouraged by teachers at Baird Middle School to change their names and pronouns without letting the parents know.

The suit was filed by Massachusetts Family Institute and the Child and Parental Rights Campaign.

“The school officials’ behavior sends the message that parents do not have the best interest of their children in mind. It assumes that children need to be protected FROM their parents, instead of BY their parents,” said Andrew Beckwith, a lawyer representing the parents and president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, according to a news story published in May.


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