EDUCATION

How the state Legislature caused Arizona students to take action

Yana Kunichoff
Arizona Republic

Dawn Shim, 16, was on her way home from Chandler’s Hamilton High School in April when she came across an article that made her angry.

“Super angry,” she said.

The news was about a bill the Arizona Legislature recently passed that prohibits transgender girls from school athletic teams designated for girls.

That night, at 10:30 p.m., she began typing her angry, frustrated thoughts.

“I am a high school student … interested in politics, but I’ve never paid much attention to state issues,” began the letter she shared on social media. She wrote about the athletics bill and a proposal related to student records. “Honestly, I think that this bizarre trend is just a very badly created facade to hide discrimination in Arizona schools.”

By the time she woke up the next day, a flood of replies from students was in her inbox. Most expressed surprise and offered help.  

Shim realized she needed to do something. “I can't just be complaining … into the social media void and just expect something to happen,” she said.

This year, the Legislature approved several laws that opponents said will have detrimental effects on LGBTQ students. In Chandler Unified School District, one of the largest school systems in the state, the 2022 legislative session spurred students like Shim to action.

For Shim and her friends, the legislation is personal. They founded a group called Support Equality Arizona Schools. Now that most new laws are in effect, these young activists are organizing to ensure LGBTQ students and students of color are protected at school and are joining a growing movement of Arizona activists too young to vote.

“It’s extremely harmful,” said Chandler High School student Yara Rosas, 16. “There’s going to be a rise in … possibly unsafe households and a large decline in mental health.”

High School junior Dawn Shim (left), junior Yara Rosas (middle), and senior Hayden Nguyen (right), pose for a photo at Desert Breeze Park on Aug. 28, 2022, in Chandler, AZ.

Frustration over laws

Since Shim shared her angry Instagram post, Support Equality Arizona Schools has grown to about 10 core members. They’re mostly students in Chandler, but a few students are from other parts of the state, including Flagstaff.

Last spring, they held a rally in front of Chandler City Hall. They use the messaging app Discord to strategize, dissect the text of laws they want to change and are petitioning their district to explicitly support LGBTQ students. They already have more than 300 signatures.

And on Thursday, less than a week after laws they disagree with went into effect, they are planning a protest during school hours. 

In addition to stopping transgender girls from playing on athletic teams that match their gender identity, the laws the students oppose offer the public greater opportunity to challenge library books and other learning material, and give parents explicit access to student records, including counseling records.

HB 2495, for instance, prohibits “sexually explicit” material in schools. The law is broad and even prohibits books that describe people having sex. The students are concerned it could be used to selectively remove library and course material, especially books about LGBTQ people.

Another bill, HB 2439, goes into effect next year. It allows parents to receive a list of library materials their children have borrowed and requires schools to post new library offerings online for 60 days. Schools must notify parents of the open and close dates of the "public review" period.

Anti-LGBTQ pushes in Texas and Florida schools this year offer a sense of how Arizona’s new laws can play out, the students said.

In Texas, a state lawmaker sent a letter to school districts asking them to report whether they have copies of dozens of books, accelerating public challenges to books about gender and race.

Florida this year banned conversations about gender and sexual identity in kindergarten through third grade, spurring teachers to pull books from the shelves.

Another Arizona bill, HB 2161, allows parents explicit access to student records, including counseling and health files. The Chandler students are worried this provision will lead to LGBTQ students being outed to parents before the students are ready.

In those cases, lives are at stake, the student activists said. Student suicide has been a major discussion at Chandler Unified board meetings in recent months.

The Trevor Project, a national non-profit created to support LGBTQ youth, this year found that 45% of LGBTQ youth surveyed seriously considered suicide in the past year. The survey also found fewer than one in three transgender or nonbinary youth found their home to be gender-affirming.

Chandler Unified has promised increased access to counselors and suicide prevention resources. But if an LGBTQ student is worried that a counselor will out them to parents who are not accepting, the student activists wonder, are those extra resources really helpful?

“LGBTQIA and trans students no longer have confidentiality with their counselors and teachers,” said Oliver Milic, 15, a 10th-grade student and member of Support Equality Arizona Schools. “But the counselors need to be able to connect with students on that level, and it’s just not happening.”

Tempe Union High School District is one of the Valley districts that has passed measures that openly support the identity of LGBTQ students. The Chandler students said it could be a model for other districts. Tempe Union’s board passed a resolution in April promising the district would be a welcoming space for LGBTQ students and condemning legislation that could adversely impact LGBTQ students.

It’s not clear how Tempe Union’s resolution will stand up in light of the new Arizona laws. A spokesperson with Tempe Union said they will continue to evaluate the situation. 

The Chandler students want the city of Chandler to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance that would protect people from sexual orientation, gender identity and racial discrimination. They also want Chandler Unified to pass an anti-discrimination resolution and promise school officials will not prematurely share students’ chosen names or identity information.

A nondiscrimination ordinance “is by far the best solution” to “ensure the lives and livelihoods of LGBTQ people are protected, now and in the future,” Shim wrote in a letter to the Chandler City Council.

The students have met with Chandler council members and attended most school board meetings since the group was formed.

But elected officials don’t seem to be feeling the students’ urgency, Shim said.

A Chandler spokesman said the city is in the midst of evaluating a year-long assessment of its diversity, equity and inclusion work, and has included a community group called Chandler Pride to ensure that work will support LGBTQ people.

In a statement, a Chandler Unified spokesperson said the district is dedicated to creating a welcoming climate and culture for all students, including supporting student mental health needs. The district is also required to abide by federal and state laws, the statement said.

“Governing Board policy is updated in accordance with the law and board policy is followed for all student and staff matters,” said district spokesperson Stephanie Ingersoll.

Chandler School Board President Barb Mozdzen and Vice President Jason Olive said the board had not yet discussed student demands for a non-discrimination resolution.

Board member Lindsay Love commended the students for their continuing to attend board meetings and advocating for LGBTQ students. She said she is disappointed the board as a whole has not done more.

“It is ... disheartening to see there is not a plan in action in terms of what we could be doing to better serve these students,” said Love, who works for a behavioral health agency and is a licensed clinical social worker.

Faces of Arizona: When AZ lawmakers targeted transgender youth, this woman knew she had to speak up

Growing youth movement

High Schoolers and organizers for LGBTQ+ issues and representation pose for a photo at Desert Breeze Park on Aug. 28, 2022, in Chandler, AZ. (Left to Right) Yara Rosas, 16, Hayden Nguyen, 17, Corinne Collins, 16, Dawn Shim, 16, and Kanix Gallo, 14.

In recent years, youth activists around the U.S. have walked out to protest gun laws, school policies that limit how race and identity are taught in schools, and federal energy policy. The Chandler students join a constellation of student organizers in Arizona who are fired up about political questions, including college affordability and climate change.

Peoria Unified School District student Mikah Dyer, 16, has been on the city’s youth advisory council since middle school. He said most of his high school peers are stressed about paying for college, which inspired him to help elect legislators whom he hopes can help make higher education affordable.

“That's why we get people activated to vote. Because we need them voting for the people that are going to actually try to make change," Dyer said.

For Sahil Sud, 17, a debate team question pushed him to read more about climate change and seriously consider Arizona’s future. He became involved in the Arizona Youth Climate Coalition. Through the coalition, he has pushed Mesa and Tempe to adopt climate action plans. He plans to help lead community feedback on Phoenix’s climate plan in the coming months.

“It’s always difficult to escape completely the idea that climate change is a global issue and a couple of teenagers in Arizona are not going to be able to prevent the significant impacts it’s going to have,” said Sud, who attends BASIS Scottsdale and also organizes with the Arizona Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander for Equity Coalition. “But a lot of the enforcement is reliant on local changes being made and cities actually meeting their climate action goals.”

Rayne Duncan, 18, who graduated from Phoenix Union High School last year, is outspoken about the need for more support for transgender students. They were bullied their first few years of high school before switching to a school with an active club for LGBTQ students and a more welcoming staff. Now they’re volunteering with GLSEN Arizona, a local affiliate of a national LGBTQ group that is focused on improving the K-12 experience for LGBTQ students.

“When you’re a teenager, it’s already so hard … but when you’re queer it adds another level of danger — like if I tell the wrong person I could be hurt physically,” Duncan said. “I need to work to make sure that no one feels the way that I felt, which was alone and depressed, to the point where I didn't want to be me.”

Another example of student activism will be found on Arizonans’ November ballot.

Immigrant students are working to turn voters out in support of Proposition 308. The initiative would let many undocumented Arizona high school graduates pay in-state university tuition and access financial aid if they have graduated from an Arizona high school and have attended Arizona schools for at least two years.

More resilient individuals

On a recent Saturday, a few members of Support Equality Arizona Schools sat together in a Chandler park, brainstorming their next actions, including Thursday's school-time protest.

They all came to activism from different places. One member’s interest was sparked by going to the Women’s March with his sister. Another got his first taste of organizing from doing swimming safety advocacy in elementary school.

They can’t help but feel how far they have come.

“People DM me on Instagram and ask, ‘How do you start a student organization?'” laughs Shim, who said that last spring the ins and outs of planning marches and writing news releases were totally new. “It’s meaningful, and it’s making people also want to do things, and I think that’s pretty cool.”

The protest action they have planned for Thursday, both the excitement and the uncertainty, is at the forefront of their minds. Regardless of how their protest turns out, these student activists said their work together has made them more resilient as individuals.

Last year, during Kanix Gallo’s freshman year, he had a teacher who refused to use Gallo’s preferred pronouns and instead referred to Gallo as “it.” The conflict got Gallo suspended.

Now, Gallo, 14, said, he feels more comfortable asserting himself with the teacher because he has a group of friends who vocally support his identity.

“Last year, I probably would have just switched out of the class,” he said. “This year, I’ve gone to the principal, I’ve had multiple meetings. And if it continues, I’m gonna go higher. And I know I’m able to do this because of the support system I have.”

Reach the reporter at ykunichoff@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @yanazure.