Student leaders speak out against Dunleavy’s parental rights bill

two Alaska students
Sitka junior Felix Myers and Anchorage sophomore Maggie Cothran spoke at a joint session of the Alaska House and Senate Education Committees on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Screenshots from Gavel Alaska)

Student advisors to the state Board of Education spoke out against what Gov. Mike Dunleavy calls his “parental rights” bill at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees on Wednesday.

“It was scary,” Sitka High School junior Felix Myers said in an interview Thursday. “But I felt it needed to be done.”

Discussing Dunleavy’s bill – which would require written permission from parents before students could change their names, use different pronouns at school or join programs or clubs related to gender and sexuality – wasn’t on the agenda. After board members presented on topics like teacher retention and state test scores, House committee co-chair Rep. Jamie Allard invited the students to speak.

“I have friends who don’t come out to their parents because they don’t feel safe,” Maggie Cothron, a sophomore at Polaris K-12 School in Anchorage, told the committee. “It’s going to have a lot of negative consequences that you may not realize.”

Myers said those negative consequences could include a higher risk of suicide.

“The people that are not accepted by their parents are the ones that are the most affected by this bill,” he said.

According to a 2022 survey by the Trevor Project, 45% of LGBTQ youth in Alaska seriously considered suicide in the past year. The survey found 64% of LGBTQ youth in Alaska wanted to access mental health care but didn’t, and one of the top reasons was because they didn’t want to ask their parents for permission.

Dunleavy’s proposed bill would require school districts to address “the physical safety and privacy of students in locker rooms and restrooms” by separating student locker room and bathroom facilities by gender assigned at birth or providing access to single stall restrooms.

But Myers said his transgender and non-binary classmates have appreciated their access to gender-neutral bathrooms. 

“That support for them has been immense,” he said. “The ability to feel respected in their classrooms when their pronouns are used correctly is something that they’ve greatly appreciated.”

Cothron said other youth leaders support policies that affirm queer and trans students’ identities. She told the committee about the Alaska Association for Student Governments’ resolution to create gender-neutral bathrooms at Wasilla High School.

The State Board of Education is appointed by Dunleavy. Cothron and Myers emphasized that their views are their own, and that they weren’t speaking on behalf of the state board. But they’re glad they shared their views with legislators.

“We’re students right now, but we have to think about the students in the future,” Cothron said. “Our world is changing, and the idea of expression and becoming who we are is new. People are finally being more open and being able to express themselves. And it’s going to continue, I hope, to grow.”

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