Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting sex and gender content in schools. A second meeting for public testimony is scheduled Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)

Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting sex and gender content in schools. A second meeting for public testimony is scheduled Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire)

Peninsula voices among ‘parental rights’ debate in Juneau

People who spoke in opposition outnumbered those who spoke in support by three to one

Parents, teachers and residents from around the Kenai Peninsula are joining a statewide debate over Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “parental rights” legislation, which critics say unfairly targets transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

The bill has solicited hours of public testimony from Alaskans across the state and has yet to move out the Alaska House Education Committee. That committee is co-chaired by Rep. Justin Ruffridge, R-Soldotna, and Rep. Jamie Allard, R-Eagle River. Ruffridge said last week that he is currently working with Dunleavy to amend the bill.

In bringing the H.B. 105 forward, Dunleavy told reporters in a press conference held in March that he sought to increase opportunities for parents to be involved in their children’s education. Opponents, however, say the legislation disproportionately targets transgender and gender-nonconforming youth — a population that is already more vulnerable than other demographics.

Under the umbrella of “parental rights,” H.B. 105, addresses sexual education, pronoun use for students, locker room and bathroom use by students and more clearly outlines what parents are entitled to when it comes to schools.

Currently, Alaska parents are able to opt their children out of school activities or classes that include content about human reproduction or sexual matters. H.B. 105 would require parents to provide written permission for their children to participate in programs with that content, which would newly include “gender identity” as well.

Further, H.B. 105 would require written permission from a student’s parent before the name or pronouns the school uses to address that student is changed. The bill would also require parents to be notified in writing about their right to pursue legal action against a school district if they suspect their parental rights have been violated.

The bill would also prevent schools from selectively withholding from a student’s parent or guardian information about that student’s physical, medical or mental health. Exceptions may be made in cases where “a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure of the information would result in child abuse or neglect” as defined by Alaska law.

Lastly, the legislation would require Alaska school boards to adopt procedures for separating students by biological sex in school locker rooms and restrooms, provide single occupant facilities or write other procedures that “address the physical safety and privacy of students.”

Backlash to H.B. 105, which some have likened to so-called “don’t say gay” legislation passed in Florida, was swift. As reported by the Juneau Empire, about 90% of the people who testified on H.B. 105 during the bill’s first public hearing opposed the bill. About 80% of those who spoke during a second public hearing on the bill were opposed.

Of the people who testified before the House Education Committee, 17 identified themselves as residents of or calling from the Kenai Peninsula. Of those, the people who spoke in opposition outnumbered those who spoke in support by three to one.

David Brighton, a teacher at Skyview Middle School, testified in opposition to the bill. He said he has never questioned students who have asked to go by their middle name, rather than their first name, and asked lawmakers to respect the right of people “looking for common decency.”

“This bill will interrupt the learning process for many of those students that are in the LGBTQ+ community,” Brighton said. “Students need to feel safe. I have students that have come to me and asked to use pronouns. They’ve asked me to use a different name than is on the rolls. And when I do that, their faces light up.”

Mark Fraad, a P.E. teacher at Seward Elementary School, also testified in opposition, saying that his job as an educator is to teach kids and keep them safe. He called the bill “a big distraction” from other problems facing Alaska’s school districts, such as budget deficits, and encouraged lawmakers to focus on those issues.

“My motto is ‘come as you are,’” Fraad said. “I believe diversity is our greatest attribute. As an educator, I welcome all students no matter their race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. With the very high suicide rate LGBTQ students face, I find this bill, H.B. 105, targets LGBTQ students, and is completely unnecessary and a complete overreach.”

Esther Joseph, a Yup’ik high school student from Kenai, said they are queer and nonbinary and said passing H.B. 105 would make them feel unsafe in school. Further, they said limiting sexual education materials means students may not be equipped with the terms and vocabulary needed to articulate abuse and that children have the right to learn bodily autonomy.

“I’m already uncomfortable sharing my true and full self in school. But the passing of the bill will ensure that I will feel unsafe in any school setting. Well, I am in 12th grade, and I will be graduating. Soon I have two younger siblings who do not fit into the traditional male, female, gender binary and I fear for their safety as they continue their schooling.”

Still, not everyone calling into Juneau from the Kenai Peninsula opposed the legislation.

Rebecca Heinsberger, of Kasilof, spoke in support of the legislation during the bill’s most recent hearing. She suggested that “gender confusion” caused by “grooming” in schools is what negatively affects student’s mental health and said government schools should never come between a student and their parents.

“With the rare exception of dysfunctional or abusive parents, the great majority of parents are normal, safe and loving and know their own child and his or her history issues and personalities best,” Heinsberger said. “The parents are the child’s safe world.”

Some of the same concerns about H.B. 105 voiced by peninsula residents to the House Education Committee also came up during a town hall event last week. During that event, hosted by Ruffridge and by Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, attendees questioned whether the two lawmakers support the bill and whether constituents could expect them to vote in a “godly” way.

In response, Ruffridge said that he was approached by Dunleavy about amending the bill as a way of making it more likely to pass.

Ruffridge said that, if the bill is to be a true parents’ rights bill, then there needs to be different language in the bill text to strengthen that idea. There are places where Dunleavy and he disagree, Ruffridge said, but that people should expert amendments and “a large, almost rewrite” of the bill coming from his office.

“The Senate has already indicated (that), if we pass it out of the House, it’s more than likely dead on arrival,” Ruffridge said.

A third public hearing on H.B. 105 is being held on Monday at 8 a.m., with additional hearings on the bill scheduled for Wednesday and Friday, all in the House Education Committee. More information about H.B. 105 can be found on the bill’s webpage at akleg.gov.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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