Senators advance bill targeting student pronoun changes in Indiana schools

Colorful Pride fans and pins with pronouns sit on a black tablecloth.
Indiana senators have advanced a bill that would require parental consent if students seek to change the pronouns they use. Supporters say it would provide appropriate power to parents, but critics say it would ultimately harm LGBTQ youth. (Andi Rice for Chalkbeat)

Indiana’s 2023 legislative session is under way, and state legislators have introduced more than 100 new education bills and bills impacting schools and students. For the latest Indiana education news, sign up for Chalkbeat Indiana’s free newsletter here.

This article originally published in the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

Indiana senators made multiple amendments on the fly Wednesday to a controversial “parental rights” bill that seeks to restrict pronoun usage of transgender children and instruction about “human sexuality” in schools. 

Critics of the bill argue that it’s part of a nationwide wave of legislation “singling out LGBT people and their families.” Supporters say parents have the “right” and “responsibility” to control what their children learn — and are called — when at school.

House Bill 1608 would require schools to inform parents if a student requests to change their name or pronouns for any reason — including to a nickname — and block adherence to the student’s request without a parent’s explicit consent.

It would also prohibit instruction on “human sexuality” for students in pre-K through 3rd grade. Sexual education typically does not start until the fourth or sixth grades under existing state standards, however.

The proposal is reminiscent of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that has been described by some as one of the most “hateful” pieces of legislation in the country.

The measure advanced 9-4 Wednesday from the Senate Education Committee after three hours of debate — much of which included passionate testimony in opposition of the bill. Loud chants, cheers and booing echoed outside of the Senate chamber and through the Statehouse hallways amid the discourse. 

“If you pass this bill … expect the youth homeless population to rise, expect the teen suicide rate to rise, expect the incidence of violence against LGBTQ+ people to rise,” said Quinn Mackenzie, a nonbinary Hoosier who spoke before the committee. “There are those who want you to believe that this bill protects children. As a parent with genuine religious conviction, I understand that — I want the best for my children, too and I want to protect them. But trans and queerness is not something that children need to be protected from.”

Notifying parents about nicknames

An amendment filed by bill sponsor Sen. Stacey Donato, R-Logansport, stipulates that teachers have to seek consent from a parent — not just notify them — to call a student by a different name. 

Multiple other spontaneous amendments to that amendment followed, too. Democrats on the Senate committee asked to hold off on the changes and a vote on the underlying bill because of the confusion, but were turned down.

Although the latest version of the bill would apply to all Hoosier K-12 schools, private schools are exempted from the language restricting “human sexuality.” 

Provisions about requested name changes require teachers to obtain parental consent within five business days, regardless of whether the name matches a student’s assigned-sex, according to the bill. 

Although not specified in the bill, that teacher-parent communication could come in the form of a phone call, text message, email, or physical letter, according to Republican state lawmakers.

“A school should tell parents about any student requests to change their names, pronouns or etcetera, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the gender transition,” Donato said, nothing that if a student wanted to change their name from Stacy to Susan, for example, the school would need to notify parents and get consent to go ahead with the request.

“It’s easier for schools to administer, because they won’t have to decide if a name change is masculine or feminine. If a student wants to change the name, you just tell the parents, period,” Donato continued. “Secondly, with this language … I believe that if a previous transgender student asks their school to change their name back to something that matches their sex at birth, parents would want to know about that, as well.”

Another provision additionally prevents schools from disciplining teachers that still use a child’s old name or pronouns — even with parental permission to use the new, preferred versions — if the employee or staff member does so out of a “religious conviction.”

Bill author Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland, maintained that her proposal intends to “empower Hoosier parents by reinforcing that they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to introducing sensitive topics to their children.”

“I believe that parents know their children best, and their authority should not be superseded by teachers and or school administrators,” she said. 

“By allowing our schools to instruct our young elementary students in human sexuality, and allowing students to decide on different identities without their parents’ knowledge and consent, creates an unacceptable intrusion into the parent-child relationship and would be inconsistent with our traditional presumption of parental competence and good intention,” Davis continued. “Engaging in any type of sexual relationship discussions in schools — especially for pre-K through third graders — is inappropriate. 

Opposition mounts against ‘anti-trans’ legislation

State lawmakers have directed intense legislative focus toward transgender Hoosiers this session — much of which has centered on school-age children.

Melanie Davis, a transgender mom from Bloomington, said language in this bill and others reflects old, “harmful” stereotypes about transgender people. She emphasized that House Bill 1608 is dangerous to LGBTQ children and protects “abusive” school faculty who refuse to use preferred pronouns. 

“We have moved on. We have grown up as a nation. … These kids are living in a world where they can actually be themselves for the first time in our history as a nation,” Davis said. “Now, you’re invalidating — you’re stripping this away from their future.”

Katie Blair with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana, added that “vague language” in the bill “could create serious, unforeseen consequences for schools, teachers and families.”

She said the bill, if passed, would make “age appropriate and clearly school appropriate conversations” illegal in Indiana classrooms.

“LGBTQ teachers could find themselves in violation of the law simply for acknowledging that they are married within the context of the school. Teachers who happen to be transgender could lose jobs just for existing. Children of same sex couples should be allowed to bring their dads or their moms on school trips and visits just like any other child,” Blair said. “But it’s easy to see that this bill would significantly chill a school’s ability to be welcoming for those kids. “We need to stop forcing teachers to be gender police and from making personal, subjective judgments about whether or not a student may be showing signs that they are transgender and to report on them.”

Donato said the amended bill does not stop schools from providing “age appropriate instruction on sexual abuse.”

Rep. Davis declined to give specific examples but claimed that parents in her district have reported “human sexuality” instruction in their young children’s schools. 

Still, the definition of “human sexuality” remains vague. Davis describes it as “just the way people experience and express themselves sexually,” but conceded that “everything is open to interpretation.”

She said an amendment to the bill to clarify what teachers can and can not talk about is “definitely something” lawmakers should consider on the Senate floor, “that way, teachers know exactly what they can and cannot do in the classroom.” 

The bill is likely to be up for discussion in the full chamber next week.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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