Local districts adopt legal mandates on sex ed, gender identity: ‘We’re going to do what’s best for the kid’

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Ludlow Superintendent Mike Borchers said that the implementation of new state mandates around policies related to sex education and gender identity probably won’t change much about how district staff helps students experiencing distress related to their sexuality or gender identity.

“I really feel like if you keep the focus on what’s best for the kid, regardless of what the policy is, you’re going to do what’s right by them,” Borchers said.

Borcher’s attitude mirrors the opinions of many elected school board members and school staff: In spite of the controversy around Kentucky Senate Bill 150 and the policies that proceed from it, districts that have voted to enact the policies don’t believe it will have much effect on how the districts provide services for the students.

Ludlow Independent School District joined numerous other area districts at their board of education meeting Thursday when they voted to accept the new mandates, which include new policies related to sex education and the gender identity of students that resulted from the passage of the controversial SB 150.

The new raft of legal mandates are wide-reaching and contain a variety of updates, including changes to personnel, curriculum and time-off policies as well as a new requirement for expanded access to automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, at school events.

Attention around the new policies, however, has focused on two subsections related to gender identity, sex education and student privacy.

The first of the contentious policies relates to human sexuality and sex education. The policy says that if a board or principal chooses to adopt a curriculum related to human sexuality, “instruction shall include but not be limited to” the following points:

  • Abstinence from sex is the ideal goal for students and the only way to ensure total avoidance of sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy and other sex-related health problems.
  • Permanent, faithful monogamous relationships are the best way to curb sex-related health problems.
  • No student in grades five and below will receive instruction on human sexuality or sexually transmitted infections.
  • No student of any grade level will “receive any instruction or presentation that has a goal or purpose of students studying or exploring gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”
  • Schools must notify and obtain parents’ written consent before a student in grade six or above receives any kind of sex education.

Another policy, titled “student privacy rights,” deals with bathroom access based on a student’s professed gender identity.

The language in the policy states:

“A student who asserts to school officials that his or her gender is different from his or her biological sex and whose parent or legal guardian provides written consent to school officials shall be provided with the best available accommodation, but that accommodation shall not include the use of school restrooms, locker rooms, or shower rooms designated for use by students of the opposite biological sex while students of the opposite biological sex are present or could be present.”

The policy lists acceptable accommodations as “access to single-stall restrooms or controlled use of faculty bathrooms, locker rooms, or shower rooms.”

Both of these policies mirror similar changes enacted in other states and have proven divisive among both political leaders and normal Kentuckians.

One Kenton County district’s board of education, Covington Independent Schools, voted to excise these policies from their initial vote on the Kentucky School Boards Association’s mandates at their meeting on June 22 so that the board’s attorney could investigate if the district had any recourse besides voting yes or no. They also asked the district’s Superintendent, Alvin Garrison, to investigate how to substantiate the policies in a way that was equitable.

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The district passed the rest of the new policies unanimously, including one that allows parents to challenge the presence of controversial books in schools.

“I’ve had several parents, staff members, concerned members of the community reach out about these particular policies,” Covington Independent School Board President Tom Haggard told LINK nky. “It’s just general concerns that we continue to target a particularly vulnerable community, and policies like this, just continue to exacerbate differences between students, which we really don’t need to do.”

Many of the board members at Covington Independent Schools expressed disapproval when the policies first came before the board on June 10.

Questions arose about how the new policies would be enforced, as some feared that the rules would constrain students from going to school teachers, counselors and staff members for help if they had questions about their own gender identity, sexuality or their pubescent development, such as the onset of menstruation among girls.

Likewise, there was discussion among board members about how the new state policies would conflict with Title 9, a federal law passed in 1972 that forbids schools receiving federal funding from discriminating based on students’ sex. Under current Title 9 provisions, schools are required to grant access to bathrooms that correspond with students’ professed gender identities.

The Covington Independent Schools Board of Education will vote on the policies at their meeting on Monday, July 31.

Other local districts have voted in the new polices with less discussion.

Kenton County School District passed the policies in June. LINK nky did not attend the meeting where the votes were cast, but a spokesperson from the district said that the district intends to comply with the policies as written.

Fort Thomas Independent Schools passed the policies without discussion at their meeting on July 10. Although the board members did not discuss the policies before casting their votes, Board Chair Anne Meyer did offer her thoughts on the matter after the meeting.

“I’m a former counselor, so we feel really strongly that we’re on the journey with every child,” Meyer said. “We’re taking care of our kids in the buildings. That’s all I can tell you. Someone will come every once in a while to the board and talk about things and wants us to be very aware. But we’re gonna take care of all of our children.”

Erlanger-Elsmere Independent Schools passed the policies with no discussion on July 13. Superintendent Chad Molley told LINK nky that he had not heard any complaints from school staff or community members about the policies themselves or the issues to which they referred.

Walton-Verona Independent Schools also approved the new policies this month.

Prior to the approval, superintendent Matt Baker said that Walton-Verona did not have any sort of bathroom policy in place for its students, nor have their schools had any instances in which students wanted to use a restroom that didn’t align with their biological sex.

“We’ve never had any complaints,” Baker said. “The legislature kind of put some teeth in things. Through the policy update, the Board of Education is now involved in making some decisions. That is a change in course.

“I respect the fact that everybody has a right to their opinion,” Baker added. “But at the end of the day, we are bound to follow policy, and that’s what we push.”

State Politics

Laws relating to gender-affirming care and how children deal with questions of gender identity and sexuality were at the forefront of state legislative politics this year. SB 150 laid the groundwork for the Kentucky School Boards Association policies and banned gender-affirming care for minors.

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The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville), said the law’s goal was “to strengthen parental engagement and communication in children’s education and on protecting the safety of our children.”

In addition to the policies described above, SB 150 establishes parents’ right to know about student gender identity and sexuality, allows teachers not to use transgender students’ preferred pronouns and prohibits schools from offering health services to students without parental consent.

SB 150 passed quickly through both houses of the state legislature earlier this year before being vetoed by Gov. Andy Beshear. Both the House and the Senate then voted to override the governor’s veto.

Its passing quickly made waves across Kentucky as debate ensued about the rights of transgender students and the role of parents in children’s education.

Supporters say that the bill protects students’ privacy, eliminates potential for disruptive and unsafe situations at school and protects teachers’ First Amendment rights.

Critics say that the bill is hateful and negatively impacts the wellbeing of transgender and LGBTQ+ students at school.

Legal tussling over the law has already begun.

The Kentucky Department of Education kicked things off when it released an interpretation of the law that differed from the bill’s sponsors, arguing that the bill’s language granted districts the right to choose how they implemented curricula related to sex ed, sexuality and gender identity.

David Hale, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Kentucky, blocked parts of the bill from taking effect late in June, siding with an ACLU-led lawsuit that argued the law was unconstitutional.

In response, Kentucky Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron filed an emergency motion against the ruling in July.

“Child mutilation is illegal in our Commonwealth, and these reckless hormone interventions are based on an irrational ideology that ignores scientific evidence,” Cameron said in a press release. “I will do everything in my power to protect Kentucky kids from this radical agenda, and my office will continue to defend this law at every turn.”

Hale later reversed his decision.

At the June meetings, Covington Independent Schools Board of Education Attorney Mary Ann Stewart said that she expected the state policies to be challenged in court.

Meanwhile, opinion polling on the issue offer some insight into Kentuckians’ opinions on gender affirming care and issues related to gender identity.

One oft cited poll comes from Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy and the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville based LGBTQ+ advocacy group. It surveyed 625 Kentucky voters across demographics and political affiliations and suggested that most Kentuckians were against legal bans on gender-affirming care: 83% of registered Democrats, 62% of registered Republicans and 67% of independents answered that they would oppose such a law.

The poll did not ask respondents about their attitudes on gender-identity, bathroom access or transgender rights more broadly.

Polls from other organizations that surveyed national attitudes went more in-depth with people’s attitudes but also provided a more ambiguous picture.

One March poll from Marist Polling, a legacy non-partisan research group, suggested that 54% of Americans opposed legal bans on gender affirming care but pointed out that support for such bans had been growing since they last polled people in April of 2021, when 65% of respondents said they opposed bans.

Furthermore, a 2022 poll from Pew Research Center that polled over 10,000 people on a variety of topics related to gender identity suggested that 64% of Americans were in favor of laws that protected trans people from discrimination, even though 60% of Americans (a percentage that had increased since 2017) believed that gender identity corresponded to sexes assigned at birth.

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“Our job as educators is to prepare kids to go into a world that is incredibly diverse, and being able to work with all kinds of individuals who they come in contact with,” Haggard said. “And we feel like politics, they just start to hinder us from being able to accomplish that mission.”

Teachers and Students

“I can’t imagine being a K-12 educator right now and being forced to change the way that I would interact with my students,” said Bonnie Meyer, president and co-founder of the Northern Kentucky Pride Center in Covington.

Meyer spoke out publicly against the new legal mandates at the Covington Independent Schools Board of Education meeting on June 22, encouraging the board members to vote down the new policies.

“It is not always easy to do the right thing,” Meyer said at the meeting. “Regardless of who [students] are; they should know that they are safe, they should know they are protected, and they should know that they belong.”

When Meyer spoke with LINK nky in July, she said that she had been talking with parents, teachers and community members about the new policies and what it would mean for people’s lives in the upcoming school year, although she said she had not been talking with students.

“What will be interesting this fall is to see what actually comes out of this over the course of the next school year,” Meyer said. “Will we see community members or parents raising issues with teachers who are supporting LGBTQ kids?”

Meyer feared that teachers who oppose the new policies or are LGBTQ+ themselves will end up fleeing the state.

“I fear that we will see an exodus of good teachers from Kentucky because not only are you not able to offer the same sort of support, but if you’re an LGBTQ educator yourself, they’ve just thrown you way back in the closet,” Meyer said.

Although many districts have already cast their votes, school boards have little say over the day-to-day operation of the schools in their districts. So, the concrete implementation of the new policies will fall largely to teachers, counselors and other professional staff who will have to navigate the policy directives while also providing services.

Meyer said that the center plans to hold town halls and other events in the upcoming months to help concerned teachers and other education professionals provide services to LGBTQ+ students — and students generally — in this new reality.

“Here we are trying to figure out what do we do not only in supporting families but [also] kids when they when they go back to classes,” Meyer said. “And how are we supporting teachers who have very real questions and concerns about how they’re going to support youth of all ages.”

As far as Ludlow is concerned, Borchers said that interventions around district students experiencing distress related to their gender identity and sexuality in the past have been catered to the individual situations of the student.

“With some, we haven’t notified the parents immediately,” Borchers said. “Every situation has to be individualized and I hate when they do these broad policies.”

He said that the district will try to stay within the bounds of the law while still ensuring that students and families get the services they need.

“They can make this law or that law,” Borchers said. “I’m going to tell you, we’re going to do what’s best for the kid.

“We’re not going to try to put teachers and kids at odds with each other.”

LINK nky contributor Emma Balcom contributed reporting to this story.

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