PALMER — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District board on Wednesday approved Alaska’s first local ban on transgender girls participating in girls sports and other school-sponsored activities.
The change requires schools designate school-sponsored athletic teams or sports as male, female or coed and require participation in a female sport to be based on the participant’s biological sex at birth. Officials say the Mat-Su policy will not apply to visiting teams from other districts.
The Mat-Su proposal’s language mirrors the wording in a bill introduced in the Alaska Legislature sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican. The bill was tabled in the session that concluded last month.
The 6-1 school board vote Wednesday evening came after lengthy public testimony, much of it from parents and students who said the policy addressed a problem that doesn’t exist but could increase already dangerous levels of discrimination against transgender students in the district.
Rachel Levitt told the board that her transgender child, who graduated from a Mat-Su school, was attacked by four male students during their junior year, an assault captured on video and posted on social media.
The family didn’t press charges because their child “did not feel safe working with the adults in this community for protection,” especially after anti-transgender and other inflammatory social media posts surfaced from Palmer’s police chief, Levitt said. In an interview Thursday, she said her child was too frightened to pursue prosecution of the others despite encouragements from their parents as well as school staff.
“So please understand, when the officials in this community turn their backs on transgender youth, these incredibly vulnerable children are left with no one in authority to trust,” Levitt said during Wednesday’s meeting.
Others said the action will open the district to lawsuits and said the board should be focused on bigger challenges facing students including drugs, bullying and poor academic performance.
Supporters of the amendment to the district activities policy, however, praised the school board’s action as one protecting girls in sports from competition with “male-bodied” athletes at an unfair advantage.
“Sports are so important for everybody. They’re important for boys. They’re important for girls. It’s just a wonderful thing for people,” Palmer resident Rhonda Witt told the board. “I am afraid if some of these trends continue, that there’s not going to be sports for girls. And I really appreciate this board standing up for girls and women.”
Testimony was occasionally interrupted by brief, angry outbursts, prompting one parent to ask the board to protect the safety of people testifying. She later said she overhead a man in the audience making a death threat against a transgender student as they walked past with their parent.
A three-person committee of the school board proposed the amendments to existing activity policy.
School board president Ryan Ponder, a member of the committee, before Wednesday’s vote cited federal court cases he said supported the Mat-Su policy.
“Most importantly, however, this proposed policy ensures discrimination against girls and women does not occur,” Ponder said. “That they are treated fairly and not disadvantaged in athletic programs compared to male bodied athletes.”
“If we don’t do it, who will?” he said.
Only one school board member spoke out against the change: former Wasilla High School principal Dwight Probasco, the only “no” vote Wednesday night. Probasco criticized the lack of transparency as the committee developed the policy, which he said he learned about days before an initial hearing in early June.
Probasco called the policy a “solution to a problem that doesn’t exist” that will lead to lawsuits even though district officials have said they are not aware of any transgender athletes participating in activities.
“I believe that this policy, if it is approved, is discriminatory towards our transgender youth,” he said. “I believe it is a very invasive policy that cuts into the student’s rights to privacy.”
A district spokeswoman earlier this month said the district does not collect information on the number of transgender girls participating in sports.
There are apparently no other school districts considering a policy similar to the Mat-Su amendments at this time, according to the Association of Alaska School Boards.
The Anchorage School District in 2015 developed specific guidelines for working with transgender and gender nonconforming students and employees, according to a district spokeswoman.
“All students will be permitted to participate in intramural sports in a manner consistent with their gender identity consistently expressed at school,” the guidelines state. “Furthermore, all students will be permitted to participate in District-sponsored interscholastic athletics in a manner consistent with their gender identity.”
The Anchorage School District’s guidelines, the document says, are intended to “foster inclusive and welcoming learning and working environments” as well as comply with district policy and local, state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination, harassment and bullying.