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Some Kansas students upset about guidance on gender identity

<i>KCTV</i><br/>De Soto High School senior Lee Barth told the board that his very first teacher there offered a get-to-know-you card asking his preferred name and pronoun.
De Soto High School senior Lee Barth told the board that his very first teacher there offered a get-to-know-you card asking his preferred name and pronoun.

By Betsy Webster

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    DE SOTO, Kansas (KCTV) — Another local school district is wrangling with how to handle gender identity in school.

Monday night, several students expressed their concern to the De Soto school board over a document sent to teachers titled, “Guidance Related to Preferred Names, Pronouns and Gender Identity.” Some of the guidance is due to a new state law that could affect other districts.

De Soto High School senior Lee Barth told the board that his very first teacher there offered a get-to-know-you card asking his preferred name and pronoun.

“While this was a very minor question – it was only being seen by the teacher – it really meant a lot to me,” said Barth.

Now, teachers have been told not to ask about pronouns, though the student can volunteer it. It’s partly about respecting students’ privacy, but it’s also about a new Kansas law passed in May.

Section 27 of House Bill 2567, the school funding bill, specifies that: “A nonacademic test, questionnaire, survey or examination containing any questions about the student’s personal and private attitudes, values, beliefs or practices … shall not be administered … unless the parent or guardian of the student … [is] notified in writing … [and gives] written consent.”

“The request about preferred pronouns could be considered a survey of deeply held beliefs, so we ask teachers not to ask for preferred pronouns,” explained De Soto USD 232 Superintendent Frank Harwood. “But teachers have always asked, ‘Is there a name you’d like to go by other than what’s in the grade book?’ And they can still do that. That’s fine.”

But, there’s also the issue of notifying a parent when a student voluntarily asks to use their preferred name or the gender they align with.

Alexander Shields, who is a senior at Mill Valley High School, first started using the name Alexander during summer camp before 7th grade.

“It was just a way for me to test the waters,” he described. “It was a lot easier to come up to my friends first because I knew they were going to something no matter what. And if they didn’t, I could just ditch them.”

He did the same when he got to school. He hadn’t told his parents yet. He had a hard time getting a read on how they might respond. Then they got a call from the school, he said. He said they are supportive now, but he wishes he could have come out to them on his own terms.

Another student, Apollo Kouns, said his parents were supportive but he knows many are not.

“For some students, this can create an unsafe home environment,” Kouns told the board.

A change in the guidance from an August document to a September iteration allowed that not every student request regarding gender identity dictate a parental notification.

The September guidance indicates that “teachers may use a student’s preferred name informally upon student request” without parental consent, “as it is common for students to use a name other than their legal name of record” (such as someone named Robert who wants to be called Bobby).

A more permanent change, like using a “preferred name in the school yearbook…” or “…updat[ing] the gender identity field” in school records still does require parental notification and consent.

That’s meant to happen only after a social worker “meets with the student and gauges the level of family involvement.” The idea is not to “out” a student without having a discussion that allows the student to decide to go a different direction.

“We’re not going to withhold information from parents. We’re also not going to seek that out without the student’s understanding. Our goal is to support the students through what’s going to be a very difficult situation,” explained Harwood.

Some students noted that it’s not so easy to say, “If you don’t want your parents to know, just use your legal name.” That’s also referred to in the trans community as a “dead name,” as in the one you have left for dead. It can cause mental health strain, said Kouns, which can cause poor performance in school or worse.

Others said the process of involving the student before notifying a parent has not always worked that way. Barth’s parents were notified this year, he said, even though he had turned 18. He said school social workers have enough on their plate besides having to check students’ dates of birth before making calls.

Mill Valley High School Gay-Straight Alliance President Sean Olin described the whole process as odious and burdensome.

“They have to go through all these hoops that other students just plain do not have to go through,” he told the board.

Harwood approached the students after the public comment session, saying he’d like their input on a possible revision. He later told KCTV5 he doesn’t plan to change the specifics, but he’d like to discuss with students why the district is taking the action, then get feedback on that and any circumstances that might be unclear. An updated document, he said, might include clarifying language in that regard.

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