In an unannounced move, the Alaska Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution Thursday afternoon urging the state Department of Education to limit the participation of transgender girls in girls’ school sports.
The resolution, which is non-binding, encourages the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to adopt a policy that would prohibit transgender girls from competing alongside girls who are cisgender — meaning their gender identity matches their gender assigned at birth – in school sports. The resolution calls for the education department to create two sports sections: one exclusively for students whose gender is assigned at birth as female, and another that will be open to all students of any gender.
The resolution was unexpectedly added to the agenda at the end of a three-day meeting of the Alaska Board of Education in Juneau, which ended Thursday.
Billy Strickland, director of the Alaska School Activities Association, said the resolution accurately reflects a policy he discussed with members of Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration last month. Strickland said members of the governor’s administration approached him about banning transgender athletes from competing alongside cisgender athletes, with the idea of creating three divisions: one for girls, one for boys and one for college students. , which can accommodate transgender athletes.
Spokesmen for the governor’s office did not immediately respond to questions about Dunleavy’s position on the matter and whether he intended to instruct the Department of Education to adopt the policy outlined in the board’s resolution.
Strickland said there aren’t enough transgender athletes to settle in a third division. In his nine years running the organization that oversees high school sports in Alaska, he said he’s only heard of one transgender athlete. Instead, Strickland told the Dunleavy administration that it would be possible to create a department just for cisgender girls and an “open” department that could accommodate all other students, including transgender students. Girls now regularly play alongside boys in Alaska on some soccer and hockey teams when no equivalent girls’ teams exist.
Under existing regulations, it is up to individual school boards and districts to adopt and implement policies regarding the participation of transgender athletes in school sports. Most districts have no policy at all, and only the Mat-Su school board has adopted rules restricting transgender athletes from participating on teams that align with their gender identity, Strickland said.
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The policy, which Strickland discussed in early February with members of the governor’s administration — whom Strickland declined to name — would require transgender girls to play in the open division alongside boys, but as Strickland understands it, transgender boys whose gender is female birth, can choose between the two divisions.
That ordinance mirrors exactly the one proposed in the non-binding resolution passed Thursday at 4 p.m., shortly before the board meeting.
Board members and the Department of Education declined multiple requests for a copy of the resolution Friday. Department spokeswoman Laurel Shoup said she could not provide a copy of the resolution because it had not yet been signed by board President James Fields.
But according to a draft resolution obtained by the Daily News, the board urged the Alaska School Activities Association to accept the two-division proposal to protect “the integrity of girls’ high school sports.”
“The Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development supports the adoption of regulations proposed by the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development and reviewed by the people of Alaska to prioritize competitive fairness and safety on the playing field while allowing all students to participate in activities,” the resolution said.
The eight-member board passed the decision unanimously. The board’s student adviser, Maggie Cothron, abstained.
“We’re making a statement that we’re keeping girls’ sports safe, competitive and fair, that’s all,” Fields said in a brief interview after Thursday’s vote.
The resolution was introduced by board member Lorri Van Diest, who did not immediately respond to a list of questions emailed Friday.
Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said Friday that the resolution caught her “off guard” and that she only learned about it after it was passed. Tobin said she is concerned the board violated its requirement to allow the public to comment on resolutions before they are adopted.
Tobin said she was “very concerned” that the resolution likely violated the right to privacy enshrined in the Alaska Constitution.
“What I’ve been able to see is it’s possible that this resolution would violate those provisions,” Tobin said. “When I think about the handful of young people we’re talking about, I’m very worried and scared for their safety. Even his optics create a situation that could put some people’s lives in danger.
Tobin said her reading of the resolution indicated the regulations had already been proposed by the education department. A department spokesman did not respond to a question about whether the regulations had already been drafted.
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“I’m concerned primarily because I’m the chairman of the state Senate Education Policy Committee,” Tobin said. “I am concerned that the process was simply not followed and that we were unable to provide public comment on this matter.”
Tobin said the Legislature can “override” proposed regulations proposed by the Education Department or another state department.
“We give our department authority to do that in a regulation, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to pass a regulatory package that the state legislature doesn’t believe is within the intent and directive of their authority,” Tobin said.
The resolution by the Alaska Board of Education — made up of individuals appointed or reappointed by Dunleavy — comes on the heels of a measure introduced by Dunleavy that would have affected the rights of transgender students in Alaska. Earlier this month, he proposed a bill that would require gender-nonconforming students to use bathrooms and locker rooms according to their gender assigned at birth. That bill, which has yet to be voted on by members of the Legislature, would also require parental approval for students who want to change the name or pronouns they use in schools.
Questions about the participation of transgender athletes in sports come up regularly in state legislatures, including in Alaska, but Strickland said he is not aware of other states that have resolved the issue by creating just two sports divisions.
“We may become the vanguard of how we deal with this,” he said.
A bill that would have restricted the participation of transgender children in school sports failed to pass the Senate last year after being proposed by Sen. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer. Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage, proposed a similar bill earlier this year that would have allowed transgender athletes to participate in a separate co-ed group, with other groups reserved for boys and girls according to their gender assigned at birth. This bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
Members of the bipartisan majority in Alaska’s Senate this year have vowed to stay away from divisive issues, including bills that address the rights of LGBTQ people.
Samuels reported from Anchorage and Maguire reported from Juneau.
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