Olive Garrison is a Bakersfield history teacher who, according to students who attended Monday’s Kern High School District (KHSD) Board of Trustees meeting, has been receiving death threats after an interview with The New York Times was published.
On January 22, 2023, The New York Times published When Students Change Gender Identity, and Parents Don’t Know by Katie J. M. Baker, and the article quoted Garrison. The fallout and backlash from the community unfolded at the monthly KHSD meeting.
Garrison said to The Times, ‘“My job, which is a public service, is to protect kids… Sometimes, they need protection from their own parents.”’
Kern community members from various backgrounds and organizations mobilized at the KHSD Board of Trustees meeting to voice their concerns about growing issues on how schools are handling students’ rights to privacy and LGBTQ+ issues.
Sage, Vice President of Bakersfield High School’s Gay and Straight Alliance (GSA) group on campus, was in attendance with other students in support of Garrison and teachers like them. Due to discomfort, Sage did not disclose their last name.
“I know Olive, our advisor knows Olive, and I just think it’s really not okay with everything going on and what’s being said. Our whole GSA and most of the GSAs in the Kern High district have been informed that Olive has been receiving death threats. We don’t think that’s okay, and we came here to support Olive,” stated Sage.
Kern’s community was grappling with topics of political ideologies and LGBTQ+ issues. Agenda items that addressed new programs under the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) system were also scrutinized by members of the public.
Dennis Miclain is one community member who gave public comment in opposition to a Consent Agenda item, stating that, “Critics of SEL label these programs as a trojan horse used to bring ideas such as critical race theory, racism, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and other left-wing political items to the classroom. More importantly, it is changing the role of teacher to that of a psychotherapist.”
J. Bryan Batey, President of the KHSD Board of Trustees representing Area 5 stated that teachers are not trained to handle the issues being addressed in the meeting.
“Also if a Kern High employee feels that a student needs counseling regarding essentially any issue, whether it’s -in this case- sexual orientation or gender identity. That employee should refer the student to either a senior counselor or the principal of that school site. Our teachers are not trained specifically in those issues and that’s what we’re trying to convey to the folks who came here tonight,” Batey said.
Batey also continued to explain that there will be an internal review of the policies regarding the issue.
Outside the meeting room, located in the Superintendent Office Conference A room, and where the overflow attendees were seated, were multiple groups such as Rock Harbor Church, Dolores Huerta Foundation, GSA, and local high schoolers.
A KHSD student who wishes to remain anonymous due to fears of further retaliation said, “I spoke about being transgender in a board meeting and my school found out. I started going by my preferred pronouns, name, and gender at school and it just made it a lot easier. At home, I’m not recognized for who I am, gender-wise.”
“I don’t think it’s okay to harass teachers like this over things like this. It’s just really hurtful when supportive teachers face hate, they’re your support system and they try to take them away,” the student explained.
Although students were discussing comfort with gender identity, one parent accused Garrison of encouraging sex change.
Monica Madrigal, with Rock Harbor Church, stated, “We’re here tonight to oppose the teacher that is encouraging sex change for youth at the schools without parental consent. We’re hoping to have some disciplinary action towards the teacher or possible fire if she refuses to respect the wishes of parents in the high school district.”
Belen Delgado, Education Program Associate with Dolores Huerta Foundation released an official statement regarding LGBTQ+ students’ rights. Students’ right to sex education, inclusivity, and protection from harassment due to their gender or sexual orientation was mentioned by Delgado.
Delgado referenced the California Healthy Youth Act Education Code sections 51930-51939. Since 2016 the code has held public, charter, and non-religious private schools, who are federally funded, to protect LGBTQ+ students from harassment and discrimination.
“Sections 200-220 of the California Education Code states that schools must protect students from different kinds of bias and discrimination, including harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” said Delgado. “Under Education Code Sections 234-234.5, administrators, faculty, and staff are required to intervene when they witness discrimination, harassment, or bullying if they can do so safely. In addition, both the California and U.S. Constitution guarantee all students equal protection under the law.”
Members of the public who could not attend in person were encouraged to live stream the meeting, and multiple platforms like 1st Responders Media also had their streams available. Comments online while students were giving public comments criticized the students’ race, facial expressions, and overall delivery of their message.
Student Josselyne Cabreree stated, “We’re the future. We spend more time at school than we do at home, and it’s important for us to grow up in a safe space.”
Katherine Chaidez, a student from Bakersfield High School (BHS) spoke in support of her teachers.
“I found a teacher who has that safe space for certain students, and I really appreciated that because there are not that many teachers like that who speak up about supporting kids. I know they’ll support me,” said Chaidez.
Chaidez further explained that she witnessed teachers pull students aside who were struggling with their mental health and check in with them, and acts like that showed her the teachers cared.
A parent to two BHS alumni named Sylvia Hewett streamed the KHSD meeting from her home. Hewett said she raised her children to read the Holy Bible, regardless of the heavy presence of LGBTQ+ individuals among their family and friends.
Hewett stated that it would be a terrible move for schools to censor materials on sexual orientation and gender.
“I think that’s a terrible thing to do. If they don’t get an education at home because of their heritage or beliefs, a majority feel that’s not something to talk about. A child needs to know what’s going on with their body, and who more than a parent could be able to express that to them during their time of growing up so they don’t feel like they have to hide things from [the parents],” stated Hewett.
During Hewett’s daughter’s early education she told her mom that she was going to live openly as a gay female, she continued Christian bible studies until her senior year of high school and reported feeling supported by her family despite public criticism.
Hewett further explained she would feel hurt if her children decided to not share their name change or preferred pronouns because for her, there’s no judgment and there’s a deep sense to protect her children from bullying.