This week dozens of parents expressed concern for a new “gender-inclusive schools” policy adopted by the Chehalis School Board. The board members, saying they had no choice under state law, approved the policy and procedure on first reading, setting it up for final approval next month.
Chehalis got stuck with the headlines, but this actually has been happening across Lewis County and all of Washington state. According to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), acquired through a public records request by a concerned local grandparent, nearly every district in Lewis County has adopted more or less identical policy and procedures regarding transgender students.
The policy was adopted quietly in most districts. Chehalis school officials only saw an outcry because the district was unlucky enough (or perhaps fortunate, if you believe in democratic participation in local government) to have a sharp-eyed parent who noticed the innocuous-sounding item on the agenda last month. Other districts didn’t have to endure such public scrutiny. Maybe their leaders didn’t even read the policy closely, since it was packaged by the Legislature as merely a new update to state anti-discrimination policies.
So why are so many parents so upset?
Well, first of all, because the state mandates go far beyond simple anti-discrimination, despite legislative efforts to package it as such.
The mandate for “gender-inclusive schools” comes from a 2019 law, Senate Bill 5689, that had the title “Concerning harassment, intimidation, bullying, and discrimination in public schools.”
Passed as a new chapter in the state’s school anti-discrimination law, the bill hints at its actual purpose when it directs OSPI to write training manuals that will help lead to “cultural change.”
This bill sets out to remake schools and the relationship between students and parents. Along the way it also works to diminish the role of local school boards in developing policies and procedures for their communities.
The “model policy” dictated by the state law was written by OSPI and the Washington State School Directors Association (WSSDA). Its many detailed requirements aren’t really related to anti-discrimination. Instead, it lays out a detailed list of rules to change how schools handle “communication and the use of names and pronouns, student records, confidential health and education information, communication, restroom and locker room use and accessibility, sports and physical education, dress codes, and other school activities.”
The details for exactly how school and parent-student life will be rearranged comes from the “model procedure.”
The very first paragraph dictates that students can ban school leaders from communicating with their parents about their gender choices. If a student doesn’t want his or her parents to know that a new pronoun or name is being used in schools, then the schools are prohibited from informing the parents about a student's move toward a transgender or gender-expansive self-concept.
In fact, the policy said, telling a parent about a student’s new pronoun or preferred name “could be very dangerous.”
The idea that being told about important changes in their child’s life could be “very dangerous” upset many parents.
Having inserted the state into the parent-student relationship, the law now turns to restrooms and changing rooms.
“Students will be allowed to use the restroom that corresponds to the gender identity they assert at school,” the model policy states. “No student will be required to use a restroom that conflicts with their gender identity ... schools may not require a student to use an alternative restroom because of their transgender or gender-expansive status.”
The state mandates that on overnight trips, “students will be permitted to participate in accordance with the gender identity they assert at school.”
Being told that their daughters and sons cannot be guaranteed a sex-specific restroom space or hotel room on overnight trips upset many parents.
Districts do have some latitude on this issue when it comes to locker rooms. The language provided by the state said “in most cases, the district should provide the student access to the locker room that corresponds to the gender identity they assert at school” but for locker rooms only, districts do have some discretion about allowing biological males into female spaces and vice versa.
There’s much more in the policy and procedures that were of concern, and I doubt this will be the last state law that aims to remake our public schools. Upcoming issues include adoption of comprehensive sex education curricula and the possible creation of school-based health centers, which could offer reproductive health services — again, without informing parents.
School board members would be wise to start talking across district lines with one another now and begin building up an information network about new legislative proposals and whether the time would ever come for a coordinated response.
One possible angle is that the law in this case directs OSPI and WSSDA to regularly review the “model” policy and procedures. Every school board member in the state is a member of WSSDA. Maybe with a concerted cross-state effort, local school board members could make a difference in that group. Concerned parents could also let their feelings be known to Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.
Washington’s public school system has been based for more than a century on the idea of local control, but today’s Legislature seems to be changing that to a top-down model, with the threat of pulling state funding as their big stick. If parents and local school board members don’t like that, they’d better get busy in Olympia telling their legislators so. I worry that schools will have a harder time passing levies and bonds because local districts are blamed for top-down decisions the state forces local elected officials to implement.
In this case, the state bill that forced schools to adopt wide-ranging policies on gender expansiveness could have addressed discrimination, as it purported to do. It could have said that no one of any gender will be bullied or harassed, and that every student in every school must be treated with simple dignity.
But this bill didn’t do that.
Instead it laid out detailed rules aimed at changing the most fundamental concepts of gender among the young people in every town, large and small, across the state.
Which is probably why one father stood up at this week’s meeting and said that since he will homeschool his children, district policy won’t directly affect them. But it will, he said, change the nature of the community in which they live.
And that is why parents are upset.
Brian Mittge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.