TOPEKA — The Kansas State Board of Education unanimously rejected federal guidance on the rights of transgender students Tuesday afternoon in a motion asserting Kansas schools already handle the matter effectively. The head of an anti-discrimination advocacy group called that “unfortunately not true.”
Jim McNiece, the state board’s chairman and author of the motion, said his intention wasn’t to spurn the needs of transgender students but rather to oppose regulations that fetter schools on a matter that requires flexibility.
“I’m confident that Kansas schools are meeting the safety needs, first of all, of the students,” he said. “And anytime the parents, the student and the school are working together, you’ve got a perfect solution. We didn’t need the government coming in here and telling us, ‘You have to do this and you have to do that.’ ”
McNiece, a Wichita Republican, said other states might not be handling the needs of transgender students properly and might need federal guidance, but Kansas doesn’t.
“This isn’t about, that we’re against transgender kids,” he said. “It’s not about that at all. They need our support. They need us to be safe.”
Fellow board member Ken Willard, a Hutchinson Republican, had sought a resolution like McNiece’s since last month.
The federal guidance “overreaches and steps on local control and doesn’t consider the rights of all kids rather than just transgender kids,” Willard said.
But Stephanie Mott, executive director of the Kansas Statewide Transgender Education Project, rejected the state board’s assessment of the situation in Kansas and said a “vast, vast majority” of schools aren’t in compliance with the federal guidance.
“How does putting transgender students at risk protect ‘all’ students?” she asked. “It doesn’t and it never will.”
Mott said she hears from students in the state regularly — including students in Shawnee County — about the treatment they face in school. This includes school staff refusing in myriad ways to recognize their gender identity, such as by not using the name or pronoun that aligns with their gender identity or letting them use the restroom that fits their identity. Such treatment puts children at greater risk of harassment, violence and suicidal thoughts, she said.
Before the vote, a psychologist and longtime member of the Topeka USD 501 school board urged the state board to embrace the guidance sent out last month by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice to school districts.
Peg McCarthy said USD 501 has had a policy for five years barring discrimination against students based on their gender identity or gender expression. It has had a policy on restroom use, record-keeping and related matters for a year “without encountering any difficulties.”
Students “repeatedly tell me the presence of transgender students in restrooms is a non-issue at school,” said McCarthy, who in her professional work regularly sees children and adults whose gender identity or expression differs from their birth sex.
In recent weeks, the Kansas Senate passed a resolution condemning the federal guidance as a power overreach, and Attorney General Derek Schmidt said his office would join other states in a legal challenge against it.
The guidance says schools can’t discriminate against students based on their gender identity, and covers topics such as athletics and restroom use. It relates to Title IX, a federal law that bans schools from discriminating based on sex.
For example, a school can’t force a transgender student to use a restroom inconsistent with his or her gender identity.
Opponents such as House Speaker Ray Merrick say the guidance could pose safety risks to other children, an idea McCarthy rejected.
“There are no recorded instances in the nation of a transgender individual assaulting a nontransgender individual in a restroom or locker room,” she said. “Sadly, the reverse is not true. Ninety percent of transgender students report suffering verbal or physical harassment at school.”
Privacy is important for these students, McCarthy said.
“Most transgender students are private individuals who dislike their anatomy and have no interest in showing it to others,” she said. “They typically choose to use a private restroom and locker room or to dress behind a curtain. All they ask is to learn and live in peace and safety.”
Mott said a common misconception is the federal guidance concerning restrooms and locker rooms means students of different sexes will undress in front of each other or shower together.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said, explaining there are private spaces within such facilities.
Merrick’s office responded Tuesday afternoon with an emailed statement suggesting students who aren’t transgender are scared to speak up about transgender students.
“Why would students who have experienced incidents or felt unsafe come forward to the district when the district has already demonstrated they’re more interested in promoting a social agenda rather than adhering to the reality of biology?” the statement said. “There is fear among students at this age of being ostracized for any reason, and they do not want to have to deal with the harassment and bullying that would certainly come if they publicly assert their right to privacy in the restroom.”