PALMER — The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District will require written parental permission for any student taking sexual education or wanting to change their names or pronouns at school, a move criticized by parents as dangerous to transgender students.
The Mat-Su school board, which sets policy for Alaska’s second-largest district with about 19,000 students, voted 6-1 Wednesday night to approve the policies as part of a larger package that also includes bans on teacher activism and a shift to strictly academic school counseling.
The new policies mark the latest in a series of decisions championing right-wing causes in this region of Alaska that’s become a conservative stronghold. The district is also in the middle of a book challenge process that’s resulted in an unknown number of volumes pulled from shelves and the contentious formation of a new committee to review library books.
The district will now require written parental permission “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 district will also require parents be notified at least two weeks “before any activity, class, or program that includes content involving gender identity, human reproduction, or sexual matter is provided to a child” and provide written permission for participation. That means families will now have to opt in for students to participate in sex-ed classes, rather than having the option to opt out.
The school board must also approve any “curriculum, literature, or materials related to sex education, human reproduction education, or human sexuality education” under the new policy.
The board vote was made with no discussion except for comments from the only member to vote against it.
Ted Swanson, an electrician who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, told the board he supports both students and parents but “there is no age limit” to protecting the rights of an individual.
“I didn’t take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, serve in the military for five years, to sit on ... a local governing board (to) limit the First Amendment rights, the Bill of Rights, the constitutional rights of any individual,” Swanson said just before the vote. “I support librarians, I support school counselors, I support educators, I support students.”
Several of the policies adopted Wednesday parallel those proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy in a controversial bill that failed to pass the Alaska Legislature last session. Dunleavy’s “parental rights bill” would have prohibited teaching sexual education before fourth grade, required written parental permission for children to participate in sexual education after fourth grade, required parents to sign off when a child asked to change their name or pronouns, and required children to use locker rooms and restrooms according to their “biological sex.”
The governor’s bill could have been found to violate the state’s constitution, according to a review by the state agency charged with analyzing proposed legislation in Alaska, exposing the state to lawsuits.
The Mat-Su school board last year banned transgender students from using locker rooms and restrooms that match their gender identity, a move that followed failed legislation proposed by state Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican.
A majority of the people testifying Wednesday night spoke in opposition to the policy changes. Some described them as politically motivated actions that open the district to possible lawsuits and ignore the fact that some transgender students are not supported at home.
Earl Banning, an active-duty U.S. Air Force neuropsychologist and parent of a transgender child, told the board the pronoun policy would deprive transgender students of support and acceptance at school while increasing the risk of suicide in an already high-risk group.
“These policy changes make trans students have to shrink, and it prevents them from celebrating who they are in the academic setting,” Banning said. “Being transgender isn’t contagious, this isn’t a social contagion, but discrimination is contagious.”
Others voiced support for the board’s efforts to give parents more authority in decisions involving students, with a few voicing strong anti-transgender opinions.
“He and she is not optional,” said Robert Stanley, who identified himself as a pastor. “It’s not changeable.”
The policies were among nine approved in one action by the board. At the start of Wednesday’s meeting, Swanson made a motion to separate the individual proposals. That motion failed when no other board members seconded it.
The counseling change included altering a phrase that counseling shall serve students’ diverse needs to replace the word “diverse” with “academic.” It also removed a phrase saying counseling assistance will be made “without regard to gender” and added language about parental involvement.
Colony High School counselor Kristina Magner sent the board an email late last month opposing any shift away from general counseling to academic counseling only.
Removing counselors’ ability to help with mental health or other issues could have drastic consequences, she wrote, especially for students in “less supportive homes” or those who are homeless, in foster care, or living in other vulnerable settings.
Magner said she and other professionally trained school counselors are seeing a “huge rise in suicidal thoughts/ideation and just mental health in general over the last few years. Anxiety and depression are so prevalent in our youth today. I have students that are crippled with panic attacks during the school day. I have students crumbling in the hallways going completely nonverbal. I have students telling me that they are ready to kill themselves.”
Those students get sent home from the hospital and encounter monthslong wait lists at local counseling providers, she wrote. “I fear that if you take away our ability to help students with these issues, they will have nowhere to go, specifically kids without the resources to get help outside of the school. You will be creating a huge barrier for students who have no support at home.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is examining the new policies, some of which appear discriminatory or could lead to discretionary decisions that “seem to set up the district and administration for unequal application,” Michael Garvey, the organization’s advocacy director, said Thursday.
“It’s certainly concerning from a legal perspective and we’re going to be taking a good look at that,” Garvey said.