Olathe school rules could out LGBTQ students, violate rights, ACLU and advocates say

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The Olathe school district’s guidance on using students’ preferred pronouns could potentially out transgender and nonbinary students, violating their rights and putting them at risk, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and LGBTQ advocates say.

The district recently sent guidelines to its schools on handling student pronoun and name change requests. Superintendent Brent Yeager said at Thursday’s school board meeting that the district was not looking to make a substantial change in its practice. The goal was to start a conversation with staff so that the directives are understood and uniform across the district.

The district provided a document to The Star outlining its guidance, which states: “Best practice is for staff to obtain parental consent before addressing the student publicly by their preferred name and/or pronoun. This is consistent with Olathe Public Schools’ commitment to partner with our parents and students’ families in the learning and development of our students.”

Some parents and community members worry the policy could be interpreted in a way that leads to staff outing students to their families before they are ready.

“I feel like we are moving away from protecting kids and not having our teachers and administrators out kids to their parents,” school board member Brad Boyd said Thursday. “I hope that with more legal guidance and a better plan or better goal, we can come up with different guidance that wouldn’t put kids or teachers in an awkward position … while maintaining the privacy of those kids who decided to confide in a trusted adult in the building.”

The document with the directives states that staff “must be careful to refrain from incautious disclosure of a student’s gender status and/or sexual orientation. Informing the decision to disclose to a parent/guardian are considerations related to the age of the student; whether the student has developmental disabilities; protecting the privacy interests of the student; whether the communications with the parent would cause trauma to the student, and a fear for the child’s health as a result of that communication.”

Sharon Brett, legal director of ACLU Kansas, sent a letter to the district, asking it to rescind any guidance or policy requiring the school to obtain parental consent before educators use a student’s requested name and pronouns. The letter warns that denying students the right to use their preferred name and pronouns based on gender identity may violate Title IX, the civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

“Instead, the district should issue clear guidance that teachers must honor students’ requests regarding name and pronoun usage regardless of parental approval,” the letter states. “This is vital to ensuring that USD 233 teachers are respecting the constitutional and statutory rights of its students. It will also help the district avoid any potential harmful and unintended consequences that may arise when students are outed to their family against their will.”

Advocates say that such rules could potentially harm LGBTQ students, who statistically are at a greater risk of mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts.

Coming out can be especially difficult due to discrimination, transphobia and homophobia at home, in school and in the broader community. Many LGBTQ youth have voiced concerns about coming out to parents who they worry would not accept them or could even disown them, abuse them or kick them out of the house.

During Thursday’s school board meeting, district officials emphasized that they are following Title IX, as well as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“I just want to be clear in saying that our intent is not to out our students that are in that situation,” Yeager said.

“Our expectation is that if a student confides in a trusted adult, we are not asking our staff at that point to violate that privacy,” he said.

Yeager said the district has long handled such situations with respect, and that the district’s intent “is to continue to protect the privacy of our students.”

“The change for us in many ways, and what we think we need to be careful about, is when a student is put in a situation when they’re going to change their pronoun, going to change their name. And they say to a staff member or multiple staff members, ‘starting tomorrow I would like my pronoun to be different,’” Yeager said. “It puts our staff and us in a very awkward position if we say, ‘student, we are going to support that absolutely, but we’re not going to tell your parents,’ when we have a large number of people who know that information anyway.”

The document outlining the district’s guidance states that principals are expected to “acknowledge the student’s request and partner with the student and the family to the greatest extent possible in supporting the student’s request, all without causing trauma to the student during the process.”

It also states that staff should not request that students “share their pronouns or preferred names. That is out of respect for the privacy of our students and their families, and allows the sharing of that information in an environment of the student’s choosing. In the event a student shares or discloses such information, our staff will act in a supportive role for the student and family.”

Jae Moyer, representing Equality Kansas, spoke at Thursday’s meeting and pushed the district to adopt a policy that ensures LGBTQ students have a safe space to speak with teachers and staff.

“Outing is a very, very terrible thing,” Moyer said. “I want to make sure that every single thing that we’re doing in our school districts here in Johnson County means an open line of communication so that students and teachers feel safe to talk to each other about these issues. So that students feel they can be their best selves in the classroom.”

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