Dozens of people showed up to an Anchorage School Board meeting this week to push for a policy requiring district staff to notify parents if students ask to be referred to by a new name, pronoun or gender identity.
The action was organized by the Alaska Family Council, a Christianity-based organization that advocates for conservative causes.
Before the Tuesday night meeting started, around 20 people held signs that said “parental rights are essential” and “we do not co-parent with the government” — similar to messages that have appeared across the country at other school board meetings in recent years. During the meeting, many testifiers, some of whom said they were current parents of Anchorage School District students, told the school board they had the right to know what was happening with their children.
“I don’t want to beat up people. I don’t want to condemn people,” said Daniel LeBlanc, who said he was a parent of a kindergartner in the district. “People have the right to choice, the right to choose what they want. And that’s what I’m desiring as a parent, just the right to know what’s happening with my little girl.”
Some other testifiers said the school district could face lawsuits and promised to continue pushing the issue at future meetings. A couple compared the district to fascist regimes.
“It’s a parental rights issue,” Jim Minnery, the Alaska Family Council’s executive director, testified during the meeting. “Of course, if there’s some kind of a danger in the home, no one would want that child to have to be subject to that. This is not about that. This is about whether or not schools have the right to keep information separate from parents.”
[Watch testimony at Tuesday night’s school board meeting:]
While the majority of the people who testified Tuesday night on the issue held that position, a few students, community members and parents spoke in opposition to any policy changes that they said could be harmful to LGBTQ+ students.
Charlie Banning, a freshman at Steller Secondary School who is transgender, expressed concern about the passage of policy changes similar to the one being proposed.
“Feeling safe and affirmed at school has allowed me to feel free, more engaged with my classes, and able to focus on things outside of my trans identity. I hope that you will continue to stand up for kids like me,” Banning said. “Everyone deserves to feel safe, valued and affirmed in school.”
Another person who testified against the push for a policy change, Joshua Smith, said he identified as queer and grew up in a small town in Alaska.
“If someone would have outed me, if my school were to have found out and told my parents, I would have walked off into the woods and no one would have ever found me,” Smith said.
The district’s existing guidelines for working with transgender and gender non-conforming students do not require parents of secondary students to be notified about students’ gender identity or transition, though parents are often included in conversations about which pronouns, names and bathrooms those students would like to use, said Toni Riley, the district’s senior director of diversity, equity, inclusion and community engagement.
“Generally ... (parents) are already aware and may be supportive,” the guidelines say. “In some cases, however, notifying parents carries risks for the student if the family does not support the student’s desire to transition. Prior to notification of any parent or guardian regarding the transition process, school staff should work closely with the student to assess the degree to which, if any, the parent/guardian will be involved in the process, considering at all times the health, well-being, and safety of the transitioning student.”
“When a student transitions during the school year, the principal will hold a meeting with the student and parent(s) to discuss their desires and concerns,” the guidelines also say.
Riley said the guidelines were written to align with federal Title IX protections for transgender students.
“We ask that administrators and staff respect the rights of students by addressing them by their gender identity,” Riley said.
Minnery said in an interview that the goal of the group attending Tuesday’s meeting was to get the board to put a new policy on a future agenda, which would require the school district to notify parents when students ask to be referred to using a pronoun or gender identity that’s different from the sex assigned to them at birth, or if the student asks to use a separate bathroom.
Minnery said there were few situations he could imagine where a parent should be kept in the dark related to these changes.
“Parental rights supersede the student or the child being uncomfortable,” he said. “Just because a family is uncomfortable with their child turning from Joe to Josie, should that give the school district the ability to keep that information from the parents? And I would say no, definitely not.”
A similar policy was recently put in place by the Mat-Su School Board, which requires written permission from parents “before the name or pronoun that does not conform to the child’s biological sex used by a public school to address or refer to the parent’s child in person, on school identification, or in school records is changed.”
The Mat-Su policy parallels some of the language in a controversial bill proposed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy that failed to pass the Alaska Legislature earlier this year. Among other things, Dunleavy’s “parental rights bill” would have required parents to sign off when a child asked to change their name or pronouns.
The governor’s bill could have been found to violate the state’s constitution’s privacy clause, exposing the state to lawsuits, according to a review by the state agency tasked with analyzing proposed legislation in Alaska.
In the interview, Minnery also referenced a March post on a conservative website in which an anonymous teacher, who said they’re also a parent in the school district, is able to see a field for pronouns for her child in the district’s online portal from the teacher’s end, but not from the parent’s end.
Riley, with the school district, said there is an open field option for students’ preferred pronouns that is viewable to both staff and parents within Q, the student information system where families can go to check grades and attendance.
Riley said pronouns have never been hidden from parents within that system, but that the field is only visible to parents if they or their child selects a preferred pronoun during registration.
More broadly, no new board policy has been proposed, and a district spokesman said the district has no plans to make any changes to its administrative guidelines or its family engagement policy.
During the meeting Tuesday, board member Dave Donley said he would be open to considering a new policy.
“I think it’s due, that it come before this board to be considered, whether that guideline ... is appropriate or not. I think it’s very concerning that we would have something in place where parents do not need to know about these very important things currently involving their children.”
Board member Andy Holleman, a former classroom teacher and former president of the local teachers union, thanked the people who testified and said it was important to take into consideration students’ rights and sense of trust when developing practices and policies related to gender identity.
“We want every child in the room to be safe, to be comfortable enough to learn. And historically that hasn’t been the case,” he said. “Certainly if you think the child is about to do something unsafe or do something that is going to cause long-term harm, at some point teachers do have a responsibility to contact parents. But in trying to have a working relationship where students do have a safe place, you kind of have to respect that initial request for confidentiality,” he said.
Holleman said that he believed the current guidelines described withholding information from parents as an exception, not the norm.
“If you read the regulations, it leans to parental involvement. But in the case of secondary where students (asserts) it that’s not safe for them or not a good option for them, you would hold back,” he said.