By VERNON ROBISON
Moapa Valley Progress
Hundreds of parents from across the state showed up last week to another marathon meeting on the subject of drafting special policies for transgender students in the state. This time the meeting was held by the Nevada Department of Education regarding the adoption of regulations mandated by state law passed in the 2017 legislature.
The meeting, held on Friday March 30 in Las Vegas, went on for nearly seven hours and was videoconferenced to multiple locations throughout the state. More than 80 people spoke during the public comment period, most of them parents The majority of comments were opposed to the proposed regulation.
State Superintendent of Instruction Steve Canavero said that he was listening to the comments and testimony at the meeting. But he emphasized that he was bound to move forward with the regulation anyway.
“I don’t know if there is language that everyone will agree upon,” Canavero said. “I know that there are some folks who, for different reasons, don’t want the regulation.”
In any case, Canavero added that he is now obligated under state law to adopt a regulatory framework for districts in the state.
“So there will be regulations moving forward; and frankly, I feel like it is the right thing to do, as well, for our kids,” Canavero said. “Don’t think that we’re not hearing you by not just stopping. We hear you. But we also have a commensurate responsibility in the legal sense as well.”
The regulation process originated from Senate Bill 225 which was passed in the 2017 State Legislature. The measure enhances existing anti-bullying law naming a number of specific groups to receive protection. Among those groups were students with gender diverse identities. This group has received the most attention in proposed regulation.
The regulation would require districts to set policy preventing any discrimination, harassment or bullying of transgender students. In addition, the regulation would require that students have their preferred name used during graduation and other recognition ceremonies. Transgender students would also be allowed to choose the cap and gown combination appropriate to their gender identity.
Canavero addressed a number issues that he said were “common misconceptions” about the proposed regulation.
For example, many parents had commented that existing anti-bullying laws were sufficient to protect all students and that one group should not be singled out for special treatment. But Canavero said that the state’s existing anti-bullying laws are not sufficient to meet the requirements set forth in Senate Bill 225. “It is true that there is absolute coverage in a lot of cases,” he said. “But consistency with 225 must be expanded. The bill is more comprehensive.”
Canavero also insisted that the proposed language would not bring new privileges to the targeted group of students than were already afforded by the law. For example it said nothing specific about allowing transgender students to use restrooms or locker rooms opposite from their biologic gender. Instead, the regulation simply points to existing state law (NRS 651.070) and requires that schools be compliant with it, Canavero said.
But leaders of parent advocacy groups contend that such broad language would inevitably lead districts, like the Clark County School District (CCSD), to interpret that section of state law in ways that might violate the privacy rights for the majority of kids.
“We have seen how this process works and how things get interpreted,” commented Deborah Earl of the Power2Parent organization. “As we read the framework that you have brought forward we see some problems arising from the broad verbiage. We understand what it could mean as it goes through the process of becoming district policy.”
Earl was referring to her experience in a gender diversity workgroup set up last year by the CCSD trustees. This group had used a very liberal interpretation of state law and recommended an open use of restroom and locker room facilities.
Armed with those recommendations, CCSD has already started the process of drafting policy, despite overwhelming parent opposition in a series of meetings that saw huge turnout numbers. Last week, the CCSD Board of Trustees voted 4-3 to direct Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and his staff to start developing the policy.
In a previous comment at Friday’s meeting, Laura Hernandez, an activist from the Gender Justice Nevada group, made reference to the broad interpretation of state law that had spawned the CCSD workgroup recommendation.
“This is being made out to be a battle over restrooms and locker rooms,” Hernandez said. “People believe that if they oppose the regulations, they can keep gender diverse students out of the restroom or locker room of their chosen identity. But what they don’t understand is, gender diverse students already have access to those facilities and have had for years per the Nevada public accommodations law (NRS 651).”
But in his comment, State Senator Michael Roberson, in his public comment, said that this was an erroneous interpretation of that section of the law.
“I reject that as being current law,” he said. “Chapter 651 is what you have indicated as allowing for that, but I don’t believe that it does. I don’t believe that restrooms for students in a public school is a public accommodation.”
What’s more, the guidance from the federal government has changed on the public accommodation matter that had set that language in motion, Roberson said. The Obama administration in 2016 directed public schools to allow students to use facilities in alignment with their chosen gender identity. But the Trump administration had recently rescinded that guidance, Roberson said.
“I hope at some point today that someone with the Department of Education will put it on the record that the Department does not believe these regulations give any right or ability to have someone of the opposite biology enter into a restroom of the opposite sex,” Roberson said. “I think that is important for school districts to know when drafting policies. Because if the assumption is that current law already allows that; well, that can be litigated, and it will be.”
Many parents in their comments, protested what they viewed as a closed process employed to draft the regulation. Power2Parent President Erin Phillips complained that parents had been largely left out of that process.
“Parents have felt from the beginning that we were really behind the eight ball on this,” Phillips said. “No one reached out to parent groups like mine or brought us into the conversation where we could have influenced the language that we see. But we know that other activist groups were involved in that process throughout. It would have been useful to have different opinions specifically from parents.”
Moapa Valley High School teacher Michelle Anderson, of Logandale, pointed out that her training to be a licensed teacher had taught her the importance of parent involvement and family engagement in public education. She said that her job performance is now evaluated based on encouraging that engagement from parents.
“I’m concerned that we have policies being considered here that parents are adamantly against,” Anderson said. “I am concerned that parents won’t trust the district or the state because of these policies. We need to make sure that policies, when written, have parental engagement. If we don’t, we are pushing parents away.”
The regulation may be brought back again to another meeting as early as Friday, April 6, for possible action. Some of the parent comments might be incorporated into a new draft of the regulation at that meeting.
If Canavero signs off on the language, the regulation will go to the legislative commission, a committee of legislators made up of both Democrats and Republicans, for final adoption. If approved, the regulation would become the state’s “model policy,” which would set the minimum standard for districts across the state as they create their own policies.