May 28—On Wednesday, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law a bill that requires students in Oklahoma public schools to use the bathroom that matches the gender they were assigned at birth.
Although he's not listed as an author, SB 615 — originally a sex education bill — was enacted with an amendment suggested by Rep. John Talley, R-Stillwater.
Talley said his intention was to take the heat off Stillwater Public Schools, which has been under fire since February after word spread among parents that a transgender student was using the girls' bathroom at one of the school sites.
But Interim Superintendent Dr. Gay Washington told the News Press the law isn't what she would have preferred and she wishes she could have talked with Talley, who she said did not consult anyone at the district before taking action. She said she doesn't think the law provides the district with protection.
Washington said Talley was hearing "noise" at the State Capital.
"The law was passed based on untruth," she said. "It doesn't give me much confidence when I know that laws are being passed based on the loudest voices, not the truth. It was based on information they were given that was not something that had happened in Stillwater."
District leaders have never directly addressed a specific student or situation but have defended SPS staff and policies.
Washington repeatedly emphasized that the district's anti-discrimination policy, based on interpretation of federal statutes that extends protection under Title IX to gender identity, has not changed since it was adopted in an open board meeting in 2015.
District officials said the policies were adopted based on guidance from the Oklahoma State School Board Association.
On April 18, the Stillwater Board of Education approved a resolution asking for binding guidance after the Oklahoma Secretary of Education and the Oklahoma Attorney General, both of whom are actively campaigning for office, weighed in on the controversy.
They asked for a clear directive for all Oklahoma public schools from the Oklahoma Department of Education and the Oklahoma State Board of Education.
The district said it would continue to operate under its existing policy unless it had no choice because some binding authority directed otherwise.
Talley previously said he consulted with Attorney General John O'Connor, who told him his office was unable to take any action without a law to enforce. The legislation would have to take action before he could.
Talley decided the fastest way to get it done would be to add the language to a bill that was already being amended. Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, is listed as the House author.
SB 615 requires school districts to make materials used for discussing sexual behavior, sexual orientation or gender identity available for parents to inspect. Students cannot be required to participate in any such meeting or course if their parents object in writing and superintendents are required to approve all curriculum about sexual orientation and gender identity used. Superintendents are also required to notify parents in writing of their right to inspect the curriculum and their obligation to let the school know if they don't want their child to participate.
The curriculum must contain information about consent and must have teaching students about abstinence as one of its primary purposes.
The amendment added by West, on suggestion from Talley, requires public schools to designate restrooms and changing facilities for the exclusive use of males or females, based on their physical sex as defined on their birth certificate. It allows for transgender students to use individual bathrooms if they are available.
It also requires boards of education to adopt disciplinary policies for individuals who refuse to comply and punishes a school district that is non-compliant by cutting its state funding by five percent for the next year.
Both Washington and SHS Principal Uwe Gordon, who will become the district's superintendent on July 1, say SPS will comply with the law. Every school site already has an individual, gender-neutral bathroom that anyone can use.
Talley told the News Press he didn't propose the legislation out of hostility toward those in the LGBTQ+ community and said he believes it would prevent a lot of problems, from bullying to fights, if every school had a number of individual facilities instead of communal bathrooms.
He thinks that's ultimately the solution.
Gordon and Washington said they think they could have done it without the law, but they believe that will be the direction SPS moves as it builds new facilities or makes long-term renovations.
But it won't be cheap and the district can't afford to do it now.
"We costed out, just looked at converting the bathrooms that we have right now and it would be about $9 million," Washington said. "We do have a bathroom for everyone at this point, we're lucky. So I'm not really worried about meeting the intent of the law."
They both expect the law to be challenged.
"But it won't come from Stillwater Schools," Washington said.