NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Two new school board members voted Monday in a committee meeting to remove policy language that would affect transgender athletes.
Republican Josie Barnhart and Pat Bradford proposed striking language granting the latitude to middle schoolers (which still required parent approval) to participate in the sport that aligns with their gender identity. The third committee member, Stephanie Kraybill, disagreed with the action.
The committee was charged with reviewing the policy after Bradford brought it up in a surprise move at the Jan. 10 board of education meeting. She claimed the previous board was in the wrong when it voted to waive the amendment’s first reading in June 2021, even though the waiving of first readings is allowed.
Bradford led a vote to rescind the first reading, passed 4-3, then attempted to have the board vote on overturning the amendment that night; the attorney reminded her the action would be against open meetings law. The board decided to send it back to the policy committee.
At the regular meeting, Kraybill characterized the move as a “backdoor attempt” to take away the rights of transgender students.
Barnhart, taking the lead on the topic as committee chair, said the change was about consistency with high-school rules.
Because they compete for scholarships and college roster spots, high-school athletes follow statewide regulations. Transgender students must go through a lengthy process mandated by North Carolina High School Athletic Association to confirm their gender identity and gain permission to play on a team of their opposite assigned sex.
The process requires the following documentation:
- Gender identity request form
- School form indicating a change in student information software, PowerSchool, if available
- Updated school transcript, including attendance information
- A written statement from the student affirming the consistent gender identity and expression of which the student relates
- Statements from individuals such as, but not limited to parents, friends, and/or teachers, which affirm that the actions, attitudes, and manner demonstrate the student’s consistent gender identification
- A complete list of all the student’s prescribed, non-prescribed or over-the-counter, treatments or medications relative to the gender identity of the student
- Written verification from an appropriate healthcare professional
- Any other pertinent documentation or information, which the student or parent(s) believes relevant and appropriate
“It’s a very invasive process that we go through with children, basically, that are 14 through 18,” Kraybill said.
Barnhart, who said middle schoolers should follow the same steps, advocated the decision should be made “irregardless of our personal feelings.”
Kraybill added there was no reason to put the adolescents through the high school process because the current policy has not led to any problems.
Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Julie Varnam told the committee three middle schoolers are utilizing the policy and multiple high schoolers had been approved under the NCHSAA process. (NHCS declined to clarify the number of high schoolers due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).
Kraybill argued putting the high-school requirements on middle schoolers could prevent them from playing sports altogether. The policy requires parental sign-off for any student’s athletics involvement. Kraybill claimed some transgender students’ parents might not agree to let them play on a team that doesn’t align with their gender identity.
“I know that this particular board is very concerned about parental rights and parental involvement — and this one’s clearly saying parents are involved — so I can’t imagine a parent setting their child up for that kind of failure,” Kraybill said during the meeting.
Bradford claimed the language change was about safety. She cited an October incident in Cherokee County where a transgender female volleyball player spiked the ball into another player’s face, allegedly causing head and neck injuries; the school district decided to halt future games between the Highlands school and others in the district.
“It hasn’t been filed today, but at some point there will be a lawsuit, and they will name the board and everyone else they can name,” Bradford said. “I’m trying to keep us from getting into that hot water.”
Kraybill again pushed back, reminding Bradford the incident occurred in high school and the committee was discussing 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds.
“They probably do not have the strength and the adolescent development that this high school player has,” Kraybill said.
The former board chair also pointed out another issue; if the board passed the proposed amendments, what would happen to the middle schoolers using the current policy?
“Technically, we’re going to have to yank them off the team,” Kraybill said, adding the policy amendment should include a stipulation it would not go into effect until next school year.
The district could not answer how long the approval process would take if the policy passed, which would determine how much leeway would be needed to give students in time for tryouts.
The board will vote on the proposed amendment at its Feb. 7 meeting.
Other policies could get stricter language
The committee discussed several other policies at the meeting, including calendar rules, student surveys, personnel records, remote participation and the legislative committee.
- Following last week’s calendar discussion on allowing recess to count as instructional time, Barnhart proposed an amendment to the district’s calendar policy to prevent doing so.
- She proposed classifying recess as a break in the instructional day. Breaks, such as lunch and homeroom, are not counted in daily instructional hour totals, which are calculated to meet the state’s yearly requirements.
- State law and the North Carolina Board of Education do not define what counts as instructional time, leaving the idea of counting recess an open question.
- If the district passed the recess amendment, it would be more narrow than those groups’ guidelines.
- The committee voted to recommend the language addition to the board.
- Barnhart wanted to require prior written consent from parents for any district-piloted survey involving protected topics, such as sexual identity and religious and political beliefs. She cited her experience as a parent having a hard time obtaining details on past district surveys.
- The district has gotten blowback from its previous surveys, most notably one on sexual assault that asked students to report their gender identity.
- The committee voted to recommend to the board universal prior written consent.
- Barnhart proposed adding all members to the legislative committee, which currently includes three board members but has yet to be used. Its purpose is to set up meetings between the board and state legislators.
- Kraybill questioned if all members on the committee defeated the purpose of the committee, opening up a conversation on appointing a liaison instead. Barnhart said the board would have to vote on that person.
- There were also questions involving open meetings law requirements when a full board is convened.
- The discussion was postponed to the next committee meeting.
- Added to the agenda by Kraybill, she suggested the policy include language allowing the board the option to hold some remote meetings. This would not include the board’s regular monthly meetings.
- After virtual Covid-19 accommodations ended, the policy requires all meetings to be held in-person.
- The purpose would apply to special-called meetings that needed to happen abruptly. In order to accommodate board member availability, these meetings could be called online.
- The committee will recommend moving forward with Kraybill’s suggestion to the board.
- Kraybill issued a policy amendment that would prevent school board members from accessing employee personnel files without first consulting with the board.
- The board consultation would need to be held in closed session; the board would need to provide 48-hour notice of a called closed session.
- The committee will recommend the policy change to the board.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org