Alaskans oppose Dunleavy’s ‘parental rights’ bill at legislative hearing

people testifying
Nelson Merrell, Meagan Hinton and Martin Stepetin speak against Dunleavy’s bill at a House Education Committee hearing on March 30, 2023. (Screenshots via Gavel Alaska)

Alaska students, teachers and sexual assault survivors spoke against a bill Gov. Mike Dunleavy says would support parents’ rights and increase transparency in schools.

The bill would require written permission from parents before students could participate in sex education classes, use different names or pronouns at school and attend clubs related to gender and sexuality. It would also require schools to divide bathrooms by gender assigned at birth, give students access to single stall restrooms or take other “safety and privacy” measures.

During nearly five hours of public testimony Thursday night, the vast majority of participants spoke against the bill, saying it could put LGBTQ+ students at risk at school and at home.

Nelson Merrell is a parent and commercial fisherman who lives in Juneau. He wore a shirt that read “Protect LGBT+ Youth” in rainbow letters.

“The trans community is in perpetual fear of policies and hateful ideology like what this bill represents,” he told the committee.

Several teachers spoke against the bill. Thunder Mountain High School special education teacher Meagan Hinton said providing sex education and respecting the names and pronouns of transgender students hasn’t been controversial.

“Parents are able to opt out of sexual education. I have students who are transgender, and let me tell you, at the school it is not an issue,” she told the committee. “You are making it an issue. The governor is making it an issue.”

Anchorage resident Erin Willahan said the bill prioritized the views of one group of parents over the rights of all students.

“Particularly in the age of the internet, kids are going to learn about the world regardless of legislative attempts to ban books, censor conversations, remove access to sex ed and demonize LGBTQ+ classmates and parents,” she said. “Allow children the safety of exploring themselves and the world with the guidance that a teacher, curriculum and supportive environment can offer.”

The bill would also require school districts to tell parents that they can sue the district if it violates the bill’s statutes. Juneau resident Pat Race said that would hurt districts that are already struggling financially.

“We’re looking at a time when school districts are strapped for cash, and we’re trying to pile up a bunch of lawsuits against them,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to be helpful.” 

Juneau School Board member Martin Stepetin said the bill is at odds with the state’s support of local control. He said the Juneau School District already has policies on sex education, bathrooms and student name changes.

“It doesn’t matter what school board you’re from, whether it’s from Mat-Su or Juneau,” Stepetin said. “Just like the state of Alaska doesn’t like the feds overreaching into the state of Alaska’s affairs, local governments do not like the state of Alaska reaching into our local affairs.”

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District banned transgender students from using bathrooms and playing on sports teams that match their gender identity last year.

April Smith, a member of the Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board, supports the bill. She said a statewide policy would help school boards focus on other district needs.

“I’m always advocating for local control,” she said. “But some of these issues have been binding up the local boards so much that we can’t get to our normal work that we need to do – revising our policies and making sure that our teachers are getting the best training available – because we’re bogged down with these particular issues.”

Other supporters of the bill said respecting transgender students’ names and pronouns went against their Christian values. They said parents should know what’s being taught in school.

Parents can already opt their children out of sex education classes, and in many districts, view health curriculum plans online.

Some opponents who spoke Thursday worried that the bill would require parents to opt in to sexual abuse awareness and prevention curriculum required by the Alaska Safe Children’s Act

That curriculum can start as early as kindergarten, and Dunleavy’s bill would ban sex education before fourth grade.

At a committee meeting Wednesday, Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge questioned whether that curriculum, which teaches kids about “good touch” and “bad touch” to identify abuse, would be available for young students if the bill passes.

“What would be the way to be able to teach that and not have this bill apply? I’m curious as to how those things are able to live together,” he said. “How is someone supposed to be able to teach a child about what’s inappropriate without being in violation of some of the things that are in this chapter?”

Heidi Teshner, acting commissioner of the state Department of Education, said curriculum related to sexual abuse and healthy relationships would remain opt-out, rather than opt-in, if Dunleavy’s bill passes.

The bill remains in the House Education Committee. The Senate version of the bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.

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