For transgender teen Luna Berardi, a freshman at San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas, gender affirming schools provide more than a safe space for expression. They’re a lifeline for LGBTQ+ youth, lowering the threat of suicide for which they’re at higher risk than their peers.
But Berardi and other students are questioning whether the San Dieguito Union High School District is committed to providing a safe space after parents and a district trustee commented in a private Facebook group chat characterized as “transphobic” by the district’s student-led Gender Sexuality Alliance.
“I hope he gets taken out of school. … I don’t believe that he deserves this big of a title,” Berardi said of the trustee.
Now, several of the GSA students and their allies are demanding that the district take steps to protect students by adopting LGBTQ+-affirming policies, providing cultural awareness training for school communities and improving mental health services for students. The student group will formally present their resolution to the board on Thursday.
Some students and parents have also called on Trustee Michael Allman to resign from office after his participation in the chat, which unfolded in a private Facebook group he created while running for school board in 2020. After he was elected, he stepped down as an administrator of the group.
Allman has two grown children but none in district schools.
Allman has since denounced the Facebook comments, which were made in response to a later-debunked claim a parent made about a teacher requiring students to go by they/them pronouns.
Allman’s engagement with the thread was limited. He started by discussing what rules about pronouns should and should not be required of students. Then later, he replied uncritically to a comment comparing the use of “them/they” pronouns to “I / she / it” and laughed with another member who said the pronouns issue is “annoying,” “confusing” and “comical” for people like him that don’t have “this issue.” The moment that sparked the most outrage from students came when one member suggested suicide as a viable option for transgender people who have gotten a “raw deal” in life, but that comment came about an hour after Allman weighed in. Allman’s final interaction in the thread was to ask the parent who made the claim that started the thread to send him details of her interaction with her school.
School districts across the county, including Oceanside, Poway, Grossmont Union and Sweetwater Union, have policies in place similar to San Dieguito Union’s, requiring students to be addressed by the pronouns of their choice.
But the Facebook group chat represented a departure from the district’s commitment to be inclusive, according to San Dieguito Union students, who say the conversation was offensive to LGBTQ+ youth and especially troublesome considering a district trustee was involved. The students spoke out about it at a district board meeting days after the thread was posted.
The “invalidating” and “disturbing” conversation that unfolded within the private Facebook group was disheartening to students in the district who are transgender, gender non-confirming and their allies, Mace Viemeister, a GSA student leader and senior at San Dieguito Academy, said in a recent press release calling for reforms.
“We deserved an apology and a promise to be better, which we have not received, and instead have received more negative feedback from those who are supposed to protect us,” Viemeister said.
The incident has unfolded just weeks before voters will decide who gets to sit in three of the five district board seats up for election Nov. 8. David Carattini, a self-described small business owner, and Rimga Viskanta, a senior analyst for the City of Solana Beach, are competing against each other to represent Area 1, currently represented by President Maureen “Mo” Muir, who is not seeking reelection.
Software engineer Daniel Hale, marketing consultant Sheila King and business consultant and former special education teacher Jane Lea Smith, are running for the currently vacant Area 3 seat. Trustee Julie Bronstein, who oversees health sciences fundraising at UC San Diego, is running for reelection in Area 5 against parent Georgia Ringler and Phan Anderson, a software engineer.
In an Oct. 2 email to his supporters, Allman endorsed Carattini, King and Anderson, one of whom is running to unseat his colleagues on the board.
The district has seen several leadership changes lately.
Over the past two years in San Dieguito Union, four superintendents, including two interim leaders, have led the district, two board members have resigned, one has been removed and another faced an unsuccessful recall effort. The district also has been sued over its redistricting plan.
And the battle over pronouns is not the first impasse district leaders and parents have faced – as in districts across the country, disagreements over mask mandates and school reopenings also rattled San Dieguito Union two years ago – but it is creating a sharp divide among members.
The board could choose to censure a trustee that violates district policy, but some board members differ on whether the conversation violates district policy. Trustee Katrina Young, said the conversation violated several board bylaws, including policies against bullying, discrmination, hate motivated behavior and more.
“In my opinion, (Allman’s) engagement on that Facebook page… would be a violation of… the bylaws,” Young said.
Muir told inewsource that the Facebook group isn’t controlled by the district and doesn’t say it’s sponsored by the district. The group also provides a disclaimer letting individuals know that the views and opinions expressed within the group can’t be taken to represent an organization, elected official or political party.
“Under these circumstances, there is no action for the District to take,” Muir said.
Miquel Jacobs, communications coordinator for San Dieguito Union, also said that there isn’t anything in the board bylaws that spells out penalties for violations.
Suicide prevention help
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of harming themselves, call It’s Up to US, San Diego’s suicide prevention hotline, at 888-724-7240. You can also call 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a national hotline available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Misinformation drives thread
The Facebook page, called SDUHSD Families for Students First, is a private Facebook group that describes itself as non-partisan and made up of more than 2,200 parents and neighbors of the district. Allman started the group in the late 2020 as a way for parents to express their frustrations over school closures due to the pandemic.
At the time, Allman, now San Dieguito Union’s vice president, was campaigning in favor of reopening schools and was one of the Facebook group’s administrators. After becoming a board member, Allman removed himself as the group’s administrator but remains an active member whose support from the community grew the social media group considerably, said current administrators.
The Facebook thread driving the controversy started with a post from a parent who said her daughter’s teacher at Canyon Crest Academy was only allowing her to go by the pronoun “they” and would be in trouble otherwise. A press release from the student group included a screenshot of that private conversation, and the Facebook group’s administrators confirmed its authenticity.
The thread had a mix of reactions. A few members questioned whether the situation could’ve just been a misunderstanding. Some group members expressed concern that students shouldn’t be forced to use a pronoun they don’t identify with, while others made fun of how the LGBTQ+ community chooses to identify by certain gender pronouns.
Allman didn’t publicly question the claim’s validity in the thread. Instead, he engaged in the dialogue, saying students shouldn’t be put on the spot about how they identify and people should just guess an individual's pronouns.
When another member made fun of transgender people using “they/them” pronouns, comparing them to using “I / she / it,” Allman chimed in.
“The sad part is that if a student said that their pronouns were I / she / it, they would probably be charged with some hate crime!” Allman replied.
The conversation took an even darker turn in tone in places. One commenter said some trans youth are not really transgender, that they’re “just saying it” for “some type of gain.”
Then someone else countered in the chat, asking the commenter what harm is there in supporting the children “where they’re at at that moment,” especially given the high rate of suicide among transgender youth. According to a 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, nearly half of transgender youth seriously consider suicide and one in five reported attempting it.
“Because the school district seems to be imposing this issue on us with pronouns, that’s why it’s my business,” the commenter responded, adding that some people who don’t have this gender “issue” find it “comical” and “confusing” for their kids. “I see that you’re very passionate about this issue and I respect that. Keep up the good fight.”
Then Allman weighed in: “Too much!” Allman said, adding laughing emojis.
About an hour later, the same person who said trans youth aren’t all trans went on to say, “People who are not male or female have gotten a raw deal and will never be able to live their best life. … Personally, there are some groups of people out there that I approve of suicide as their anwser. Rapist, murders, pedophiles and this group.”
Allman did not respond to the suicide comment in the thread. His second to last interaction in the post, laughing with a community member about gender pronouns being “comical,” happened about an hour before the suicide comment was made. Allman also replied to the CCA parent, about two hours before the suicide comment, to request her correspondence with the principal about the pronoun policy. That was the full extent of Allman’s participation in the thread.
The thread has since been taken down. CCA Principal Brett Killeen and the parent, whose initial post started the thread, confirmed that the post was inaccurate and resulted from a misunderstanding. The parent declined additional comment to inewsource.
“If an individual has preferred pronouns at our school and in our district, we honor the request with genuine respect,” Killeen said.
Removing the post didn’t end the fallout over it.
Screenshots of the private conversation circulated, driving several students, teachers and community members to an Aug. 25 board meeting where they called for Allman to step down.
Allman defended himself.
“If there was anything that was hateful said on that site, I completely repudiate whoever put that entry on Facebook,” Allman said after a student called him out about the incident during public comment.
After public input, Allman shared his screen to show a group text he sent to administrators the day after the Facebook incident asking them to take down the “inappropriate” comment. The Facebook group’s administrators told inewsource that the accusations of transphobic and hateful dialogue don’t reflect the attitudes and compassion of its members.
“The accusations against Trustee Allman are also false. The vast majority of parents, including Mr. Allman, fully support anti-bullying programs and efforts to prevent discrimination in all forms, especially discrimination against young people who are struggling with gender dysphoria,” they said.
At the board meeting, Allman proposed a new pronoun policy, saying staff should respect students’ preferred pronouns but that students shouldn’t be required to share their own or use another student's preferred pronouns. But the board didn’t debate or vote on it after Young said the item wasn’t on the agenda and Muir called for a recess.
Allman, board react
Allman later posted a statement about the incident on his website saying “suicide is not funny” and “everyone should be called by the pronouns of their choice without question, ridicule or judgement.” Allman said some people that have unfairly associated his laughing emojis and “too much” comment with the post about transgender suicide, catching him in a “gotcha” moment. But they misread the thread: he commented before the post about suicide.
“How can I laugh about suicide if that comment came after the first comment?” Allman said. “Every life is valuable, and every person deserves respect. This is unequivocally what I believe, and no one should say otherwise.”
At another board meeting on Sept. 14, over 100 people filled the board room as students once again denounced Allman’s participation in the chat and proposed several resolutions. The board didn’t vote on them because they weren’t on the formal agenda, but students will have another shot at getting the board to act Thursday.
During the meeting, Young said the LBGTQ+ community deserves not only to hear the board publicly condemn the social media thread, but they need to hear it.
“Joking that I, she, it or just it are appropriate pronouns for a non-binary individual is transphobic,” Young said. “And so is agreeing with, laughing at and commenting on those posts.”
Board Member Bronstein also condemned the dialogue that unfolded within the private Facebook group and said she was an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.
“There are enough challenges for our transgender students to navigate without being subjected to hateful and transphobic speech,” she said.
The incident drove some parents to speak on the issue during the Sept. 14 board meeting. One community member spoke out in frustration against the situation and another shared her disagreement about the district’s pronoun policy.
“Since when did teachers start to go around the classroom to give handouts (and) give name tags to our kids and ask for their pronouns?” the parent asked the board members. “What does our kids’ sexual preference or gender have to do with school academics? Nothing.”
Another speaker came to Allman’s defense, saying he was falsely accused of wrongdoing by the parents of the district and other adults involved.
“(Adults) told (students) Michael wrote, or said, or did something that didn't happen,” he said, blaming the escalation of the situation on a union organizer, who he said wants a union backed board to implement diversity, equity and inclusion and Critical Race Theory.
Pronouns underscore political rift
Some candidates running for the district’s school board have also spoken out. Ringler said it’s a shame that this situation occurred and that it affected many members of the community.
“Everyone has an opinion,” she said, but “it’s how you deliver it that makes a difference. Sometimes, we don't need to give our opinion at all, especially if you cannot give it without hurting someone else.”
San Dieguito Union used to make headlines because of its top-tier academics, but over the past couple of years, controversy has surrounded news about the district, Viskanta said. Troubles escalated in 2020, after the current board took control and pandemic tensions heightened, she added.
“I think the issue brings to light the core of who candidates truly are and where their interests lie,” Viskanta said.
Moving forward, the district needs board members who prioritize supporting all members of the community, including LGBTQ+ students, Smith said. District leaders also should hire a superintendent who is committed to celebrating diversity in the district, she said.
Carattini, King and Anderson, all of whom Allman endorsed in an Oct. 2 email to his supporters, did not respond to requests for comment from inewsource. In the email Allman says that for more than two decades, the San Dieguito School board has mainly been made up by trustees who are backed by teachers unions and support decisions that may not be in the best interest of students and families.
But that all changed when he was elected and the majority of members were independent, he said, adding that his initiatives have all fallen under the theme of “making our district great.”
“It is imperative that we help these candidates get elected if we want to make our schools the best they can be,” Allman said.
Not San Dieguito Union’s culture, students say
The LGBTQ+ students and families speaking out against the Facebook thread say the lack of acceptance of their community exhibited by some parents and Allman is a departure from what they’ve experienced as a normally inclusive district. Berardi, the SDA freshman, said feeling accepted at school has never been a problem.
But both moms believe board members will be too afraid of Allman’s supporters to take action against comments that harm their community. And they said they have no plans to take their child out of the district because the incident is not part of the culture. However, fighting for a more inclusive environment is not something they plan on giving up on.
“I have been able to actually express the way that I felt while also dealing with my gender issues,” said Berardi, who uses he/them pronouns. “I'm able to finally feel some sort of acceptance here.”
For moms Deborah and Michelle Gordon, the behavior seen on the board is quite different from the school environment they sought when they moved states four years ago. Deborah said they wanted their child to attend a more progessive school with great academics.
“That’s why we chose SDA,” she said.
“We will continue to fight for our kids,” Michelle Gordon said.
In the past two years, the district has seen significant change and there’s a lot of division among residents, said Smith, who is also a parent of a recent CCA graduate. Smith, who lost against Trustee Allman by a few hundred votes in the 2020 school board election, said it saddens her to see a rift, which board leadership has encouraged.
“I think that there have been efforts within the community to prey on people's anxieties and fears around differences or changes in the world or changes in our population,” Smith said. “That's unfortunate because change is inevitable, and I think we can work together as a community to understand.”
The LGBTQ+ students demanding change say they are still awaiting on an apology, but at this point they just want to see the board take steps to enact their recommendations to protect them.
“I just hope that all of the kids in our district feel safe and loved and that's really my biggest priority,” Viemeister said.