Local teachers worry pronoun law will put students at risk | #schoolsaftey

Editor’s note: Teachers quoted in this article spoke to the Daily Journal under the condition of anonymity due to the controversial nature of the law.

When a Center Grove teacher saw a restriction on changing student pronouns passed into law in May she was terrified.

The House Enrolled Act 1608, authored by State Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland, requires schools to alert parents if their child wants to change their name or pronoun and restricts the teaching of human sexuality in kindergarten through third grade. Despite the law, Indiana’s curriculum already did not include human sexuality education for early elementary-age children.

The law was initially called Indiana’s “Don’t Say Gay” by some, as it was originally more restrictive and similar to a controversial Florida law. Even as passed, it is facing a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. However, the law went into partial effect Saturday.

Law would ‘out’ trans kids

Local teachers believe the new law will have a detrimental effect on transgender students who don’t feel safe revealing their identity to their parents. This is worrying for teachers because some students feel they can’t turn to their parents for support because of their anti-LGBTQ+ feelings.

“Something like this is outing a kid. It’s already traumatic enough for them; they’re going through the emotions and thoughts of their identity. I’m terrified,” the Center Grove teacher said. “I can’t have a child that comes to me at 15 years old and shares these thoughts with me — and I know they’d come to me because they trust me and didn’t go to their parents. If this goes through, I’m 100% sure kids will stop reaching out to teachers. They won’t reach out to anybody.”

Teachers are a needed support system for those who can’t come out to their parents, a Franklin teacher said.

“I think this law will put students in danger. If a student has not come out to their parents, who might be homophobic or not understand them, that’s going to make their living situation really tough,” she said. “I think our students today have enough pressure on them already without a legislator representing Whiteland making things worse.”

The Center Grove teacher has seen why that support system is needed firsthand, she said.

“I had a kid who wanted to go by a different identity and the student’s name was going to be on a program. The parents found out that name was going on the program, and it was not good,” she said. “Despite the fact the student wanted something else and was actively dressing and living a different lifestyle. The parent was so angry, like it was not acceptable to do that.”

Davis could not comment on it because of the pending litigation, her press secretary Abrahm Hurt said in an email. During the spring legislative session, Davis defended the bill and said she authored it in response to concerns from parents in her district, according to an article from the Indiana Capital Chronicle.

Legal challenge

The ACLU of Indiana filed a challenge to the law on June 9 in defense of a teacher from Indianapolis Public Schools who is concerned about the law’s vagueness regarding human sexuality instruction. J.P. Hanlon, judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, will hear the case later in July.

If Hanlon decides to issue a preliminary injunction later in July as the case proceeds, however, it will temporarily block the law as students return to classes, and the law would remain blocked until the judge issues a decision on the case, said Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana.

The language of the law “provides that a school, an employee or staff member of a school, or a third party vendor used by a school to provide instruction may not provide any instruction to a student in prekindergarten through grade 3 on human sexuality.”

There are a variety of factors that make that language unclear, Falk said.

“The law prohibits instruction on human sexuality in kindergarten through third grade but doesn’t describe what instruction on human sexuality is. It’s a very vague law that can result in a loss of (teaching) license,” he said. “With no guidance as to what they can and cannot do, instruction could mean something that goes on outside of the classroom, which infringes on the first amendment rights of teachers as private citizens.”

The law also is ambiguous regarding which classroom materials must now be excluded to avoid teaching about human sexuality, Falk said.

“A first-grade teacher might have ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ which ends with her being kissed by a stranger without consent. Is that human sexuality?” he said. “When you have the vagueness, combined with the ability to express yourself guaranteed to private citizens, you have to think there are serious constitutional problems.”

Teachers are too busy covering curriculum to bring up discussions of sexuality in class, the Franklin teacher said.

“I don’t know any (kindergarten) through (third grade) teacher who just brings up sexuality with their students. It’s not a thing,” she said. “Whether it’s the elementary, middle or high school level, there are so many standards and objectives we are supposed to focus on from the state, we don’t have time to delve into the subjects parents fear we will.”

Unclear future

Teachers are unsure of how protocols will change for them during the upcoming school year.

Franklin educators still haven’t gotten guidance on the reporting procedures, the teacher said.

“We’ve gotten no guidance from our school about this,” she said. “The only thing we were told at the end of this (school) year was ‘this is not something to worry about.’”

While the law specifies the school must report a pronoun or name change, it doesn’t specify if a teacher must notify a parent themselves or who to talk to if a student has that conversation with them. Procedures for reporting will have to be decided by each school district.

Clark-Pleasant’s school board policy 4004 honors students’ pronoun and name preferences, but the policy has not been changed to address the new law. The policy has directions regarding students who have not yet told parents about their new identity.

“If a student has not disclosed their gender identity to a parent/guardian, the database information cannot be changed; the student’s affirmed name shall be noted as a ‘preferred name’ in the system,” the policy says. “Student documents other than the student’s official transcript should reflect the student’s request regarding their name and/or gender marker/pronouns.”

A school district spokesperson said school officials wouldn’t comment on the policy until school board members name a new superintendent in July.

Other concerns about the law

Local teachers also shared concerns the law would worsen relationships between teachers and parents and would drive more teachers away from the profession.

Those relationships were already shaky before the law was introduced, a second Franklin teacher said.

“I worry about (students’) safety at home, especially knowing the suicide rate and mental health issues are much higher for students questioning their identity,” she said. “I have kids who have told me their parents think this is our agenda, that we’re actually trying to change kids and trying to force sexuality on them. That’s mind-blowing to me, but to meet a student and know if I call home that’s what a parent thinks of me is very disturbing.”

Center Grove schools had 56 teachers resign during the 2021-22 school year, and another 33 resign this past academic year, according to school district data. Those numbers will likely only increase with this law, the Center Grove teacher said.

“A lot of the people we have that are quitting are younger people. They get a job that doesn’t pay a lot of money, they’re a year or two out of college and they’re a different generation, too,” she said. “They are younger millennials and maybe Gen Z who have very different ideas about acceptance and that sort of thing. They get a teaching job and they have to deal with issues like this. I said it myself in February, ‘if I’m forced to do this, I can’t do it.’ Here I am thinking ‘what am I going to do?’”

The second Franklin teacher said she will probably retire soon after serving several decades in the profession.

“I work with younger teachers saying ‘I can’t do more than 10 (years),’” she said. “Despite administrators’ attempts to say ‘don’t worry about it,’ we see these kids in the classroom every day. I hope this will not cause more divides between us and the community, but I fear that’s where this is headed. Why would people go into a profession where they don’t feel respected?”

Parents have actively spread rumors about schools and teachers that have no basis in reality, the Center Grove teacher said.

“There are a lot of lies and conspiracy theories and things that are 100% not true. We had a person three or four months ago saying online ‘Center Grove High School has litter boxes and kids are dressing up as furries,’” she said. “Where is this idea that teachers are out to harm the kids? We’re not indoctrinating anybody, we don’t have time for that.”

What teachers want to see instead

Teachers said they would rather lawmakers focus on issues such as mental health and gun safety legislation.

“My biggest concern is mental health,” the second Franklin teacher said. “Let’s focus on mental health for our kids, making sure our kids aren’t traumatized by these active shooter drills. We’re not talking about the immediate and long-term effects of having these constant drills. The culture wars have to stop.”

Lawmakers should focus on school safety through gun safety legislation. They should also address issues causing student poverty and homelessness, the first Franklin teacher said.

“The state is ultimately interested in appearances,” she said. “It’s not so much about helping students become independent thinkers or achieving whatever goals they may have in life, whether it’s college or going right into the workforce. It’s unfortunate the state just passed this without giving any guidance at all. They’re just issuing threats.”

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