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Proposed restrictions on transgender pronouns in Arkansas schools head to Senate floor


Proposed restrictions on transgender pronouns in Arkansas schools head to Senate floor

Mar 29, 2023 | 8:25 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
Proposed restrictions on transgender pronouns in schools head to Arkansas Senate
Leah LeVar, a Sylvan Hills High School student, and her father, former teacher and principal Lance LeVar, observe the Senate Education Committee meeting on March 29, 2023. Both LeVars spoke against House Bill 1468, which would primarily require school employees to address others by their given names and pronouns. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

The Arkansas Senate will consider requiring public school teachers and professors to use the pronouns and names students were assigned at birth unless parents specifically allow them to do otherwise.

House Bill 1468 would require written permission from a minor’s parent or guardian for school employees to use any “pronoun or title that is inconsistent” with the minor’s biological sex or any name or nickname that does not conform with the minor’s birth certificate.

Even if parents provide permission to use alternate names and pronouns, teachers would not be required to use them if their religious beliefs conflict with this, bill sponsor Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

“[This bill] is there to protect the teachers who don’t want to be compelled to basically lie to the children and pretend that they agree with their position” about their names and pronouns, Long said.

School employees would “not be subject to adverse employment action” and students would not be disciplined for refusing to use others’ names and pronouns besides the ones given at birth, the bill states.

Long said a teacher in Northwest Arkansas has told him she is afraid of losing her contract for adhering to her religious views about pronouns.

However, no teachers have been punished and no lawsuits have been filed in Arkansas for this reason, said Olivia Gardner, director of education policy for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

“I’ve heard the argument that kids these days change their names and personal pronouns every other week because it’s trendy,” said Gardner, one of three witnesses against House Bill 1468. “I would argue that allowing children the freedom to grow and understand their identity is not only the right thing to do but could literally save lives.”

We’re killing the spontaneity of teaching every single day with all of these culture wars that don’t have anything to do with teaching.

– Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, speaking against House Bill 1468

The committee approved the bill with dissent from its only Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Senate Minority Whip Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock.

Leding said the bill would infringe on the free speech rights of teachers “who choose to affirm the identity” of their students. Chesterfield said she disliked that the Legislature has introduced and advanced several bills that she believes “add stuff for folks to do to solve problems that basically don’t exist.”

The bill passed the House along party lines Monday. Democratic representatives spoke against the bill, saying it would not only hurt transgender students but also create an unnecessary burden for school employees to ensure that parents consent to any nicknames or pet names, regardless of a student’s gender identity.

Chesterfield echoed this concern Tuesday, citing her 33 years of teaching experience.

“I had nicknames for my kids, [and] they were affectionate,” she told Long. “If I were in the classroom today, I’d have to get permission to use those names. Is that right?”

Long said this is correct because he “was not able to” explicitly exclude nicknames and “terms of endearment” from the bill’s permission requirement despite his best efforts.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock)
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock

Chesterfield said some children might only respond “in a positive way” to pet names or other references that are not derived from their given names, and having to wait until parents approve this would hurt teachers’ ability to get through to students who might be struggling.

“Some things are just instantaneous, and I don’t want teachers punished for doing things that come as a result of the situation as it exists at that moment,” Chesterfield said.

She also said she never saw a student’s birth certificate or transcript in her entire teaching career because both were none of her business.

“I understand that teachers don’t want to be made uncomfortable, and I appreciate that and respect that a great deal,” Chesterfield said. “What I am saying is that we need to make sure, if we’re putting this stuff on teachers, that they have access to this stuff that you assume they see.”

Personal connections

Leah LeVar, a Sylvan Hills High School student, said she is concerned that transgender students would face increased suicidal ideation if their schools are not safe places to be out of the closet.

“With every new bill passed restricting the ability of trained professionals to support transgender students, another child gets one step closer to ending their life,” she said. “You have heard this before and you will hear it again. You are killing children with this legislation.”

Other bills introduced and passed this year that have drawn the same public feedback are Act 274, which classifies gender-affirming care for transgender minors as potential medical malpractice, and Act 317, which will restrict bathroom use for transgender children in schools.

Leah said she spoke against House Bill 1468 on behalf of a friend who “deals with constant vitriol and hate” in his home life.

“To me, he described being at school, where the teachers support him and refer to him the way he wants to be referred to, as a breath of fresh air,” she said. “He has dealt with severe mental health issues in the past. Without this space to be himself, he would certainly relapse. Any modicum of support he now has, he would lose.”

Proposed restrictions on transgender pronouns in Arkansas schools head to Senate floor
Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said he was also advocating for a friend of his, “a real person I know that was wronged” in a conflict he and Long said the bill should prevent.

Nicholas Meriwether sued his employer, Shawnee State University in Ohio, after he “declined a male student’s demand to be referred to as a woman with feminine titles and pronouns,” Johnson told the committee. The school initially agreed to a compromise but later issued the professor a written warning and “threatened further corrective action unless he spoke contrary to his own philosophical and Christian convictions,” Johnson said.

A federal judge dismissed the case, and Meriwether appealed the decision. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Meriwether’s favor in 2022.

Meriwether is the son of Robert Meriwether, a former Faulkner County justice of the peace and a professor, academic advisor and dean of students at Hendrix College in Conway, within Johnson’s district.

“This is not about attacking students,” Johnson said. “This is about protecting educators.”

House Bill 1468 might instead create accidental liability, said Lance LeVar, Leah’s father and a former teacher and principal. A teacher that does not know a student might hear other children use a name that does not conform to the student’s birth certificate, and this teacher might call that student by that name and not know otherwise, LeVar said.

Additionally, Arkansas has an anti-bullying law that defines bullying as “intentional harassment… that may address an attribute” of another person, including gender identity.

LeVar asked the committee which policy would be more important than the other: “the law that a student can’t be made fun of or bullied because of their gender orientation, or this [bill] that says a student can’t be punished if they make fun of them for their gender orientation?”

Chesterfield said she understood the witnesses’ concerns more clearly than the sponsors’ intentions.

“I don’t know a lot of things, but I know good teaching, and good teaching is respect for every kid in your classroom, regardless of who they are,” she said, becoming emotional. “It doesn’t matter [because] they are God’s children and they deserve respect.

“We’re killing the spontaneity of teaching every single day with all of these culture wars that don’t have anything to do with teaching. They don’t have anything to do with teaching, and we’re killing kids.”