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California and the West

Teacher's Firing Over Gender Change Stirs Controversy

Schools: Trustees say Dana Rivers ignored an admonition not to discuss topic with students. Her backers launch recall drive.

October 11, 1999|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — At Center High School, David Warfield was the teacher who helped low achievers turn it around. His media department won countless awards. He coached baseball, announced at football games. School leaders gave him their award for most inspirational teacher.

Then David Warfield made a momentous change. He became a woman. He became Dana Rivers.

Now the 44-year-old is out of a job, banned from the classroom for failing to heed warnings from district leaders to avoid discussing the sex change with students.

Rivers has sued the district in an attempt to return to the classroom. Last week, the teacher's supporters launched a recall drive against three Center Unified School District trustees who voted for the firing.

The teacher has found a national audience for the dispute, and has appeared in recent days on the "Today" and "Good Morning America" television programs.

"I just want my job back," Rivers said. "This is all about a very tiny segment of the community believing people like me shouldn't be in the classroom."

Center Unified, a 5,500-student district in a Sacramento County suburb, has been in turmoil since Rivers revealed plans for the sex change in May.

Many colleagues and students accepted it. But a few parents complained. The teacher, they griped, had violated parental rights by confiding in a couple of students and giving an emotional interview with the student newspaper.

"These kids are at an impressionable age," said Donna Earnest, whose son is a junior at Center High. "This teacher went way beyond the bounds of what's appropriate. What's to say it won't happen again?"

Supporters of Rivers say they believe that the firing was engineered by conservative Christian parents who don't want a transgender teacher in the classroom.

"Fear and ignorance are their agenda," said Bob Spore, the recall drive leader. "They're trying to get a very valuable teacher out of the district because they're uncomfortable with her personal decision."

The three trustees who voted to oust Rivers say religious beliefs were not a factor.

"I don't even belong to a church," said Scott Rodowick, board president. "This is about a tenured teacher who went way over the line by sharing private issues with students."

For years, Rivers kept such personal concerns under wraps.

Growing up in the San Francisco area, Rivers said, she yearned to slip on a sister's dress in private. And the internal conflict continued as an adult. Rivers struggled through a stint in the Navy, battled alcoholism, tried and failed at marriage three times.

But her resume was solid. Rivers served as a labor leader in Orange County for the American Federation of Teachers and was elected twice to the Huntington Beach Union High School District board in the 1980s.

Eventually, the walls seemed to close in. Rivers recalled being recruited by Democrats to run for an Assembly seat in Orange County. She balked for fear that the long-hidden secret would come out.

Moving to Northern California, Rivers decided to try teaching, and in 1990 found a home at Center High. The teacher also went into counseling, and ultimately was diagnosed with "gender dysphoria," a medical condition that causes a person to believe that he or she should be the opposite sex.

Rivers began hormone therapy and electrolysis treatments in January, the initial steps toward a sex change operation planned for next year. A few weeks before the end of the school year, Rivers told administrators about her plans. This fall, the teacher said, she would return to school as Dana Rivers.

She figured the announcement would blow over quickly. She had learned of other teachers around the state making the change without much fanfare, Rivers said, including a performing arts instructor in Red Bluff and a high school teacher in Orange County.

"I didn't think it would be a big hullabaloo," said Rivers, who has an 18-year-old daughter.

Before the end of school, the board mailed a letter to more than 2,000 parents saying that Rivers, while making a life change that would offend some people on moral grounds, was a tenured teacher protected by anti-discrimination laws.

District administrators also told Rivers to avoid discussing the issue with students.

But that gag order proved daunting. A couple of teenagers who had worked closely with Rivers in media classes approached with questions.

Wanting to soften the blow, Rivers said, she took time outside of class to explain a life of inner turmoil and the transformation from man to woman. Later, Rivers gave an interview with the school paper, discussing the failed marriages, recovery from alcoholism, the therapy, the fear of rejection by students who might label the teacher a freak.

Four parents complained, and they were joined by the Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group that focuses on parental rights and religious liberty issues.

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