By Miriam Raftery
Photo: Trustee Gary Woods has drawn heat for his comment sugesting that a mental health services provider axed by the district after a public comment over counseling of LGBTQ+ students did not reflect "East County values."
September 27, 2023 (El Cajon)—Two trustees, a candidate, parents and students are speaking out to sharply criticize the Grossmont Union High School District’s board majority for voting against renewing a contract with San Diego Youth Services, the district’s long-time mental health services provider.
SDYS provided two programs for the district: on-site clinicians seeing students referred by teachers over mental health concerns, and a suicide prevention program.
The action came after a July 20 board meeting at which Cajon Valley School Board Member Anthony Carnevale told GUHSD trustees that he had asked the chief executive director of SDYS whether students could receive talks or referrals on gender-change surgery and transition. Carnevale stated, “He did not answer my question and asked if I did not want LGBTQ+ students receiving care.” Carnevale said his district had ended its contract with the organization, NBC San Diego reports.
The motion to drop SDYS was made by Gary Woods,PhD; trustees Jim Kelly and Rob Shield voted in favor, while trustees Chris Fite and Elva Salinas voted against. Woods stated, ”We need to look for alternatives that best reflect East County values.”
Woods, who sent his own children to private schools, is a religious conservative who has taught seminary at Shadow Mountain Church and is director of EBI Leadership Development, which includes instruction in intelligent design (creationism).
The GUHSD has announced that Wellness Together will be the new mental health services provider. KPBS reports that this company must follow state law requiring inclusive treatment, as did SDYS.
Numerous parents and students packed the board room in late August to speak out against the board’s decision and ask for reconsideration, which the board majority has refused to grant.
Zoey Miller, a student, told the board that an SDYS therapist “quite literally saved my life. I wouldn’t be here without her help, her assistance, her support.”
Math teacher Kristen LoPrell urged the board to keep SDYS “so our kids don’t commit suicide,” noting that LGBTQ youths contemplate suicide at a rate four times higher than straight kids.
Trustees Fite and Salinas blasted the board majority’s decision in separate editorials published by the San Diego Union-Tribune. The three majority members refused a request by the newspaper to explain their decision.
Salinas said the decision was made “without any research” and was “backed by no evide4nceorinvestigation.” She added, “Students were both disregarded and silenced.” She added that students researched both companies and found SDYS was “the safer and better option for them.”
Salinas noted that teen suicide is at the highest level ever recorded, with one in three teen girls seriously considering suicide, according to a Feb. 2023 press release from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
At an August 30 emergency board meeting called to seek a solution, when parents and teachers pleaded with the board to reconsider. Salinas states, “When asked If they had found any evidence that the claims against San Diego Youth Services were valid,t hey said no.” Despite this, the board majority blocked efforts to put reconsideration on a future agenda.
Fite voiced concerns over the wellbeing of LGBTQ students to “not be shunned or discriminated against…Don’t they need mental health care like anybody else? Are they not people too?” he asked. “Trustees represent all of these students and parents.”
He suggested allowing parents to opt students out as a compromise, then concluded, “If we are to defend and promote democracy, we cannot allow a small but vocal status quo to decide for all always.”
Jay Steiger, a teacher and parent of students in the GUHSD district, has announced he is running for the GUHSD board over concerns about “extremism.” If elected, he would replace Salinas, who is not seeking reelection.
He calls the board majority’s decision to axe SDYS “deeply unsettling” and ”perplexing.”
In a press release, Steiger states, “Let me tell you about `East County values.’ The East County that I grew up in and live in values all in our community, including our LGBTQ+ youth. We believe that all students deserve access to mental health care. San Diego Youth Services has worked with the Grossmont Union High School District for decades. This action is a result of extremist behaviors expressed in some of our school boards across California.”
Steiger concludes, “The East County community that I cherish values the lives and welfare of all our young people. I stand with the community in urging the board to reconsider this decision…The lives of our children may well depend on it.”