Op-ed: SB 150 a direct hit to mental wellbeing of Kentucky students

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Written by Kentucky Rep. Lisa Willner of Louisville.

As a school board member, I led the charge to add gender identity and gender expression to Jefferson County Public Schools’ non-discrimination policies to protect students and staff. As a psychologist and mental health advocate, I’ve advanced efforts to make Kentucky schools more psychologically healthy and trauma-informed.  And as a legislator, I’ve engaged robustly in good faith, bipartisan work to increase resources for school-based mental health services to meet the urgent and growing needs of Kentucky students.

The recent passage of a last-minute version of Senate Bill 150 is a direct hit on the considerable progress we’ve made.  The bill is a slap in the face to students, parents, educators, and healthcare providers across the state.  And the dishonest process it took to pass it is an assault on democracy itself. 

The original Senate Bill 150 was arguably the least horrible of a series of horrible anti-LGBTQ+ bills proposed this session. The version that passed on the last day of session before a 10-day recess, however, is a Frankenstein’s monster of a bill that is anti-trans, anti-education, anti-mental health, anti-medical science, and even anti-economic development.

In the dirtiest of dirty tricks, the revised bill was voted on in a last-minute unscheduled committee meeting. Fellow Democratic members of the committee and I only learned of the meeting haphazardly, making it clear that we – and the people we represent – were meant to be excluded.  I was literally running to the committee room as the roll was called, arriving in time to shout “here” from just outside the committee room. A motion was made and seconded to approve the bill before it was presented, and our questions to clarify what was in this brand new version of the bill were treated dismissively.

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It’s remarkable that with the majority party holding 80% of seats in the Kentucky House, this wretched bill could only achieve passage through dishonest tactics and by ignoring the rules of open government.  

Senate Bill 150 aligns Kentucky with states like South Dakota, Tennessee and Florida that have sought to erase trans kids entirely and undermine others in the LGBTQ+ community.  Advocates for mental health, public schools, civil liberties, healthcare, and LGBTQ+ rights have called this legislation the “worst anti-LGBTQ+ bill in the country.” 

The bill would interfere with teachers’ and school mental health professionals’ ability to support trans kids and others, even during a mental health crisis. It would undermine student privacy. It includes the provisions of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” legislation for elementary school, but goes even further by extending dangerous limits on teaching and free speech all the way through high school.  The bill includes language in line with North Carolina’s misguided and notorious “bathroom bill” that sparked a national backlash and caused severe economic damage to the state.   

While Kentucky faces a critical teacher shortage, this bill creates new challenges and uncertainty for educators.  While we face a youth mental health crisis, this legislation interferes with mental health services in schools and exacerbates significant mental health risks already facing our kids, especially trans kids who are already at high risk for suicide. With Kentucky at the bottom of many health rankings, and with healthcare providers in too-short supply, the bill inserts politicians into private healthcare decisions and criminalizes the practice of medicine.  While the majority party has gutted Kentucky’s most reliable revenue source by adopting discredited tax policies, this bill puts Kentucky at even greater economic risk.

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Every major medical and mental health association opposes this legislation.  Educators oppose this legislation.  Business leaders oppose this legislation.  Groups pushing this agenda are identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups.  We are setting public policy that affects every Kentuckian based on the agenda of known hate groups. That’s not just wrong, it’s downright terrifying.

While the General Assembly dedicated a massive chunk of time to these dangerous policies, we failed to address Kentucky’s shameful number one ranking in child abuse, or its maternal and infant mortality rates that are among the worst in the country.

Because of the time and trickery devoted to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, it’s impossible to imagine a more traumatic session for trans kids, their parents and the queer community generally, along with friends and allies. As we continue the battle for civil rights, for reason, and for fundamental human dignity, my hope for those of us on the right side of history is that we remain resilient, draw strength from one another, and keep the faith that – in the end – love will win. 

For now, if you or someone you know is struggling, please call or text the national mental health crisis hotline at 988, or visit The Trevor Project’s helpline at thetrevorproject.org/get-help/)

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