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The Utah State Board Of Education Is Working To Clarify Murky Legal And Ethical Boundaries Around Student Gender Identity

Photo of the Utah State Board of Education building
Rocio Hernandez
Some educators worry that they won't be allowed to use a student’s preferred name or pronouns if the parents object.

The Utah State Board of Education is working towards new guidelines on how teachers allow students to express their gender identity in the classroom.

The issue, like many surrounding schools in recent years, has become a political one. In a meeting on Sept. 3, board member Scott Hansen said he and others have received numerous questions from educators and parents on using a students’ preferred name or pronouns, which prompted them to clarify how schools should approach the issue.

According to a draft of the guidance, Utah law requires teachers to have parental consent to use a students’ preferred name or pronouns, if they are different from their legal ones. But it also states that if a student has not revealed their identity to their families and could face rejection if they do, parents should not be notified.

“I really think currently [teachers] are walking on a razor's edge,” said board member Janet Cannon. “They're wondering, how do I support the student? How do I not leave out the parent?”

Almost 2% of students identify as transgender, according to a 2019 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those students were more likely to report violence victimization, substance use and suicide risk compared to cisgender students, it said.

Teachers in Utah and across the country have sought to create more supportive classroom environments for those students by asking their preferred names and pronouns. But some parents have taken issue with the practice.

The board took little action at its meeting, simply clarifying the purpose and goals of the new guidance, which will be discussed in more detail next month.

Allison Martin, an assistant principal at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center in the Salt Lake City School District, said she worries the current emphasis on parents’ rights could lead to impossible standards for teachers to enforce.

“If I have a student who comes to school in a hijab and takes it off every day when she gets to her locker, am I supposed to force that child to put her hijab back on?” Martin asked. “It becomes a really awful slippery slope. Either it really targets transgender kids or it puts this ridiculous burden on educators to do things I don't think anybody should be comfortable with us doing.”

She said she expects USBE’s guidelines will be reasonable, not unlike those that ultimately came out following the debate over Critical Race Theory. But she worries the fact that the issue has received such scrutiny will have a chilling effect on teachers.

“It's like the bad neighborhood effect, right,” she said. “If you hear that a neighborhood is crime ridden and scary, people avoid it. And it doesn't matter how much the statistics don't support that. So teachers will believe that they're going to get in trouble even if they're not. And the practice will stop and that's where the real harm comes in.”

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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