Seeking Petaluma school support for transgender students

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TRANSGENDER ADOLESCENT SUICIDE BEHAVIOR

Nearly 14% of adolescents (ages 11-19) reported a previous suicide attempt. Disaparaties were found based on gender identity.

-Female to male: 51%

-Gender fluid, or non-binary: 42%

-Male to female: 30%

-Questioning: 28%

-Female: 18%

-Male: 10%

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

MORE INFORMATION

To donate to Amor Para Todos, visit https://www.giveoutday.org/c/GO/a/lviapta

It had been a few hours since breakfast, and Kawika Ho, 6, was predictably reaching for the child lock on the pantry door.

His mom, Renee Ho, removed it, and he instantly grabbed a box of crackers before jumping into her lap.

Snack time is his favorite part of school, she said. Kawika smiled and nodded in agreement as he stuffed two crackers into his mouth.

On the surface, there’s nothing unusual about Kawika or his family. They make their home in a quiet east Petaluma neighborhood, and on a recent Sunday morning, their four young children were playing in the front yard while their father, Matt Ho, was keeping a watchful eye from his weightlifting rack in the garage.

Inside the house, Renee, a teacher and Petaluma native, is functioning on minimal sleep, consumed by her mission to try and save their eldest son’s life.

Kawika is transgender, and an eye-opening 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that more than half of female-to-male adolescents will attempt suicide at some point.

Since Kawika’s transition almost three years ago, Renee has been devoted to finding early intervention measures that could combat those figures, and subdue the underlying factors rooted in the second-leading cause of death for people between the age of 10 and 24.

“It’s an epidemic,” she said, “and as a mother, I can’t just sit back and let those statistics come into fruition with him.”

Renee eventually discovered a professional development program by the Human Rights Commission called “Welcoming Schools,” which provides teachers with specialized gender and LGBTQ training that helps reduce biases and foster a more inclusive environment.

Since then, she has been tirelessly fighting to get it implemented at Kawika’s school, Loma Vista Immersion Academy, working in conjunction with the administration and Old Adobe School District officials to potentially get a pilot program that, if successful, could spur its adoption districtwide.

“Without more specific education, even the best teachers – and he’s had the best teachers – there are still holes,” Renee said. “If you haven’t had experience with teaching a gender expansive or transgender student, you’re not going to know 100 percent how to do that. And because of some bumps along the way and the statistics being so alarming, we had to do something.”

Introducing Welcome Schools to Petaluma is far from a sure thing, though.

The program costs roughly $37,000, and requires teachers to devote a total of seven days to training over a three-year span. To accommodate it, administrators will have to add the training on top of the typical curriculum development teachers undergo annually, a hurdle district officials said could delay its realization until the 2020-21 school year.

And even though the Loma Vista faculty and parent-teacher association are onboard, making all this happen has forced the Ho family to publicly discuss an issue that they never expected to be advocates for – in a world that still hasn’t embraced it.

If Old Adobe institutes the training at its schools, it would be the first district in the North Bay to do so, according to HRC spokesperson Elliott Kozuch.

‘Follow his lead’

When Kawika was 2 years old, his parents noticed aspects of his behavior that resembled more of the traditional, masculine forms of expression. At the time, they thought nothing of it.

TRANSGENDER ADOLESCENT SUICIDE BEHAVIOR

Nearly 14% of adolescents (ages 11-19) reported a previous suicide attempt. Disaparaties were found based on gender identity.

-Female to male: 51%

-Gender fluid, or non-binary: 42%

-Male to female: 30%

-Questioning: 28%

-Female: 18%

-Male: 10%

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

MORE INFORMATION

To donate to Amor Para Todos, visit https://www.giveoutday.org/c/GO/a/lviapta

“We just thought he was a tomboy,” said Matt, who works as a pharmacist in Santa Rosa.

About a year later, those actions became words, and Kawika was communicating constantly that he was a boy, his parents said. The 3-year-old began pointing to feminine features he loathed like long eyelashes or pink lipstick, and went straight for boys clothing whenever they went shopping.

“We love him and were 100 percent onboard no matter what, but we wanted to make sure because we didn’t know what to do,” Renee said. “We went to a psychologist who specializes in children who are gender expansive and transgender. He told us to just follow his lead, he’ll let you know.”

Generally, transitions occur later in life, and there’s no telltale signs that explicitly reveal someone is transgender, said Skye Nashelsky, a family therapist in Santa Rosa that specializes in LGBTQ counseling.

But increasingly more often, he said, parents are educating themselves and being more collaborative in those moments so children can express themselves without causing the kind of damage that could lead to gender dysphoria, depression or suicide.

So having less restrictive upbringings overall has led to younger transitions.

“What I’m finding more and more is it’s a lot more fluid all around,” Nashelsky said. “Letting your kid take the lead is really key. If they’re asking to start with them wearing clothing from the other department than the one they were assigned to shop in … it doesn’t mean anything unless he says he feels like a girl or he wants to use a different pronoun.

“It’s not being so afraid, and letting kids be themselves and supporting them as they grow.”

For Kawika, the comments about his gender became “consistent and persistent,” Renee said. After much reflection and discussion, both inside the home and with teachers and other parents at his preschool, they made the decision to complete the physical transition right after Thanksgiving break in 2016.

Kawika cut his hair, changed his wardrobe and began using male pronouns. One of his teachers described the experience saying, “His classmates didn’t skip a beat. Racism, stereotyping, it’s not something that they have (at that age) – it’s taught.”

A few weeks later, the Ho family began discussing the name change. Kawika suggested “Hulk.” But Matt and Renee had planned on naming their first son, “Kawika,” Matt’s middle name, which translates to “David.”

In Biblical terms, it means “beloved.”

Away from the public, those were difficult days for the couple. They privately mourned the daughter they lost, and things got even more complicated over a year later when Kawika started claiming both genders, revealing that he was now non-binary, which comes with even greater challenges.

He was laughed at by his classmates during that phase, but every day he marched into school expressing both genders, committed to being the most authentic version of himself. His parents lauded his bravery, and described a level of profundity that’s well beyond his years.

Last month, Loma Vista recognized Kawika with an award for courage.

As he’s gotten older, the gender fluidity has ceased, Renee said. He’s recently started to understand that physical traits don’t necessarily determine someone’s identity, and that it’s character that will ultimately determine his acceptance by his peers.

“As a parent, you will do anything to protect your children, but in some circumstances, you can’t – you don’t have the (tools), you don’t know (what do),” Renee said. “We know that we loved him no matter what, but we know that society isn’t as nice. That was really, really scary in the beginning.”

Love for all

To bring Welcoming Schools to Loma Vista required not just the approval of the faculty and school community – it required a nonprofit arm to help raise funds.

With the consent of the PTA, Renee formed a subcommittee called Amor Para Todos, which means “love for all” in Spanish. It has 25 members and counting, she said.

It also required agile planning and execution. To get the program added to the district calendar for the 2019-20 school year, the Ho family needed to get all of the necessary approvals and funding secured ostensibly before May 31 so the district could work the training into next year’s schedule.

It’s not uncommon for parents to take on this sort of undertaking, either. Often, schools develop a “504 Plan” that can help them secure resources to better accommodate a child with special needs, and improve their experience at a school.

“We threw it out to the staff to see if it was something we wanted to embark on,” said Loma Vista Principal Jorge Arvizu. “Overall I like it because it’s inclusive for a lot of demographics. It’s not just gender biases, but also bullying and making students feel welcome. When we consciously do that, it’s a better environment.”

Renee has provided numerous presentations to school officials, and been in constant communication with Old Adobe Superintendent Craig Conte, who is paying close attention to see if there’s merit to pursuing the curriculum at other sites.

For two years, the district has been providing resources to the Loma Vista faculty, and brought in a psychologist that specialized with transgender youth, Conte said.

Kawika represents a unique situation as one of two students the veteran educator recalls being publicly out as transgender in a district of primary schools and preschools. The other child was about a decade ago, and Conte remembers the lack of resources at that time, and the struggles the family went through.

“The fact that we could have children in our district that are going through this is important, and how best can we support them?” he said. “If we’re a welcoming school, we’re welcoming to everybody. There’s power in that.”

While the district explores scheduling, Amor Para Todos is focused on funding. Renee sent a $35,000 grant application to the Braitmayer Foundation that could provide a much more comprehensive second year of training if it’s accepted.

Before that, however, she’s trying to raise $17,000 just to fund the first year. With APT’s designation as a nonprofit, the organization was able to get included in Give OUT Day on April 18, a day of giving for LGBTQ nonprofits nationwide.

Since the Horizons Foundation started it in 2013, approximately 45,000 individual donors have contributed nearly $5 million to more than 600 different organizations. APT hopes to be a part of that this year.

Using a custom webpage through the Give OUT Day site, word is already spreading, Renee said, and she’s optimistic they can hit their funding goal and sign the contract with the HRC right after.

APT will also be hosting a fundraiser at Rafy’s Pizza that night from 4 to 9 p.m.

But like every step of this process for the Ho family, nothing is certain.

Kawika is celebrating his birthday later this month, and as he ages, everything about his life will continue to change. School will become harder. His peers will be less pure.

His body will continue to develop.

In Hawaii, Matt was raised tough on the island of Maui, he said. He plans on instilling those values in his eldest son, and is considering enrolling Kawika in Brazilian jujitsu to help him raise his self-esteem by knowing that he could defend himself if he ever needs to.

After this, Matt and Renee hope they don’t have to discuss Kawika’s gender anymore, and can give him the freedom to decide who to tell and how to share his most intimate details. They know that they will slowly lose power over their son’s environment, but for as long as they have it, their efforts to ensure he doesn’t become another statistic will be unrelenting.

“I just love my kid,” Matt said, “and I want what’s best for him.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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