The mother of a middle schooler choked up as she stood before her school board in Damariscotta and accused the district of violating her rights as a parent by not telling her that her child wanted to be identified as a boy instead of a girl.

“A social worker at the school encouraged a student to keep a secret from their parents,” she told the board in December.

Days later, the counselor and superintendent were named in an email from an anonymous sender that called them child abusers who had “forfeited” their “right to life” and threatened violence, shutting down a school for the day and triggering an ongoing police investigation. A second round of similar threats closed the school again last month.

The handling of gender identity in public schools has emerged as a new front in the culture war that is fueling efforts across the state and nation to ban library books and remove classroom posters, and is becoming a wedge issue in politics from school board contests to presidential campaigns. At the center of the debate is a question: What, if anything at all, should an educator do if a student changes their gender identity at school and the parents don’t know?

While activists, politicians, parents and educators clash over the answer, students like Mena Bowers are often left out of the conversation.

Bowers, a transgender 17-year-old at Hermon High School near Bangor, knew at age 12 that she wanted to be a girl instead of a boy. But she didn’t tell her parents until her 15th birthday. She said she was confident her parents would be supportive but was still scared and felt more comfortable confiding in friends first.


Bowers was right. Her family was accepting. But she said she has other transgender and queer friends who don’t feel like they can tell their parents and even some who are worried they could be subject to physical abuse if they do.

“The idea that parents always know what’s best, I want it to be true,” Bowers said. “But that’s not how it is.”

Briar Chapin, left, and Mena Bowers outside of Hermon High School on Friday. Both students are members of the school’s gender and sexuality alliance. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The population of youth in the United States who identify as transgender appears small. But it has grown significantly – almost doubling – over the past few years, researchers estimate. As schools work to support this growing population, they also come under fire from parents, politicians and conservative activists who say that matters of gender and sexuality should be left to families and that educators who provide confidential support to students are trying to cut parents out of their children’s lives. In response, educators have argued that schools should be safe spaces for transgender students who may not be ready to come out to their parents. Some have accused “parents’ rights” supporters of being transphobic and aiming to undermine public education.

Sonya Bowers, Mena’s mother, said she wishes Mena had come to her earlier, that it pains her to know Mena was struggling so much with her identity and that she couldn’t help. But she also said she understands that Mena had to take things at her own pace.

“I think a lot of kids feel things out with their friends before they go to their parents,” she said. “In the last year, she’s opened up a lot more to me and we’ve had a lot of good conversations, and I’m grateful for that.”

Educators, mental health and child development specialists and academic and legal experts say managing a situation in which a student socially transitions from one gender to another at school without telling parents is tricky for numerous reasons.


There is no clear legal framework for schools in handling the situation, so decisions about how to best support transgender students often end up in the hands of local school districts and school board members. The situation also must be handled with care, experts say, because transgender youth are a particularly vulnerable population, at greater risk of bullying and violence, substance use, poor mental health and suicide compared with their cisgender counterparts — although research shows that affirming the identity of transgender youth can help prevent these negative mental health outcomes.

Caroline Shanti, assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern Maine, said children who don’t feel their identity is accepted often experience insecurity and other challenges.

“We give kids so many messages about how they’re supposed to be and, although it is changing, in our culture we still put a premium on heterosexuality and strict gender roles,” said Shanti, who is nonbinary.

“Kids who get messages that they are different and that that is wrong are going to internalize that,” Shanti said. “If you grow up from a young age thinking you have to hide parts of yourself, it’s going to be hard to figure out who you really are.”

While none of the experts or school officials interviewed by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram said they felt comfortable with leaving parents out of important discussions concerning their children’s lives, many said they thought it was important for students to be able to use their chosen identities and be themselves in school without fear of being “outed” to their parents before they are ready to talk about their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Briar Chapin, a 15-year-old sophomore at Hermon High School, said he first recognized that he thought both genders were attractive when he was around 8 years old. But it wasn’t until middle school that he shared that information with his parents. He knew they would be supportive, he said, but he told his friends first. He just wasn’t ready to tell his parents.


Chapin said that, when possible, it’s important to share such information with parents, but individuals need to do what feels comfortable.

“I don’t think it’s a process that should be rushed,” he said. “It’s a scary process and a person needs to physically and mentally prepare themselves.”

Hermon High School, which both Mena Bowers and Briar Chapin attend, is one of the Maine schools at the center of the debate over parents’ rights and the future of K-12 education, a debate at least partly fueled by some conservative activists who have promoted false and transphobic narratives in the name of parents’ rights and “anti-woke” education.

The conflict in Maine and nationally is fed by partisanship and prejudices. But it’s also filled with complexity and gray areas that are hard to navigate amid an extremely heated debate.

In her statement to the school board in Damariscotta, parent Amber Lavigne said that she had recently found a chest binder – a compression undergarment worn to flatten breasts – in her child’s room. She accused a social worker at the school of giving it to her child and providing counseling without Lavigne’s knowledge. She has since pulled her child from the school system.

Lavigne declined to be interviewed by the Press Herald about the statement she made to the school board, and the superintendent said the school district cannot provide information regarding confidential communications between the student and the social worker.


In that statement, Lavigne said she felt sidelined, that the school district had broken her trust by keeping important information about her child from her. “Decisions made threw a wedge between a child and their parents,” she said.

Her statement also included language some conservatives have used to stigmatize the transgender community, including accusing the counselor of predatory behavior and “grooming” her child.

Courts have ruled that parents have a constitutional right to raise their children and direct their education. But courts have also deemed that children have constitutional rights as autonomous people. Neither of the rights are absolute, however, leading to the push and pull seen today in Maine and around the country.

Eventually, courts will have to figure out how to balance those competing interests and the responsibilities of the public school system, said Jessica Feinberg, a University of Maine School of Law professor specializing in family law and gender and sexuality law. But for now, the job has been left to states, school districts and local school boards.

For educators, school counselors, social workers and administrators, that’s not an easy spot to be in.

Lynsey Johnston, superintendent of the Central Lincoln County School System in which Lavigne’s child was enrolled, said the situation has been surreal, especially with the threats of violence.


“I never imagined this is what a career in education could look like,” she said.

She said educators have responded in stride, but that the events unfolding this winter have been a distraction from the district’s primary goal of educating its students.

Legal ambiguity leaves the country and the state with a patchwork of policies. Some states and school districts lean more toward protecting the rights of children, and others toward protecting the rights of parents.

The Portland Public School District, Maine’s largest, leans toward protecting children’s rights.

“In the event that a student and their parent or legal guardian do not agree with regard to the student’s gender identity or gender expression, the school shall abide by the wishes of the student with regard to their gender identity and gender expression while at school,” district policy states.

But when the Oxford Hills area school district tried to pass a similar policy, conservatives organized a recall election of two school board members who had supported the policy.


On Dec. 5, the board voted to indefinitely postpone a decision on the policy and the two school board members lost their posts in the Jan. 11 recall.

Voters who streamed in and out of Paris Town Hall to vote in the recall election called the proposed policy “radical,” and they said it violated parents’ rights. Some also said the recall was about something greater than the policy that triggered it.

“The recall sends a message that we don’t like the way things are going,” said one voter who declined to share his name.

In other areas of the country, students who want staff to use names or pronouns at school that represent their chosen gender identities need to get parental permission.

In the Lee County, Florida, school district, a minor’s request to be identified by a different name and gender by school staff requires a “gender support plan” with a parent signature, according to the district’s Civil Rights and Equity Guide.

“Students can be open about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” the guide states. “If a student is requesting accommodations based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity the student will be referred to the school counselor. The school counselor will let the student know that they are required to involve the parent and will work with the student through that process.”


What is now known as the parents’ rights movement has been strong for years in some parts of the country. In Maine, advocates have had little success in banning books, flipping school board seats and passing policies like Lee County’s. But the movement seems to be growing and strengthening.

Maine groups that ally themselves with the parents’ rights movement are recruiting members as clashes spread around the state.

The Maine First Project, a far-right group that describes itself as a “School of peaceful and patriotic Political and Cultural Warfare” has started holding “activist trainings” on the “art of political and cultural warfare,” according to its website. The group sent postcards, texts and robocalls to voters in support of the Oxford Hills school board recalls and purchased a half-page ad in the local paper.

Education culture war battles including the parents’ rights movement have made it harder for schools to create inclusive and respectful environments for learning and have created distrust in the greater institution, said UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access professor John Rogers.

“For public schools to succeed, they need to maintain broad public support,” he said.

Maine students and educators are feeling the impact of this escalating political battle over gender and sexuality.


Briar Chapin, the Hermon High sophomore, said that in school he feels supported by educators and his solid group of friends. But over the past year he has noticed a significant escalation in rhetoric and actions with anti-LGBTQ subtext, such as attempts to ban books that reference gay sex.

Chapin hasn’t been targeted for his sexual orientation but said that attacks on books that include gay sex and relationships, and on educators working to support LGBTQ students, make him feel hated.

“I’m not being personally attacked but it is my group that is being attacked,” he said.

“I want to be somewhere where I am accepted.”

Note: This story was updated Feb. 13 to correct the name and job title of the nonbinary University of Southern Maine instructor who said children often experience insecurity and other challenges when they don’t feel their identity is accepted. The instructor is Caroline Shanti, assistant professor of social work at the University of Southern Maine.

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