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State Senators Debate Student Rights Issues

While the Kentucky House remained in snowy weather recess, state senators convened to tackle bills dealing with student speech rights and restroom use of transgender students.

Sen. Albert Robinson (R-London) is sponsor of Senate Bill 71, which attempts to codify recent court rulings on the free speech rights of students. The bill affirms the expression of a student’s religious or political viewpoints in classroom, homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments to be free from discrimination or penalty based on those opinions. A teacher could review a student’s speech before it’s delivered at a school event, but could not alter those remarks.

The measure faced criticism that it’s an unnecessary attempt to over-regulate voluntary prayer and political speech already protected by the First Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky opposes the bill because it would prohibit local boards of education and public universities from denying funding to student organizations that discriminate against members based on sexual orientation or religion.

Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville) said the measure creates more confusion than clarity about student free speech rights.

Despite those objections, the Senate approved SB 71 on a vote of 30 – 4.

School Facilities for Transgender Students

A legislative panel traded arguments on student privacy and gender identification during debate over a bill that fairness advocates once dubbed the “bathroom bounty” bill.

Senate Bill 76, sponsored by Sen. C. B. Embry (R-Morgantown), would make transgender students use school locker and restroom facilities that reflect their biological sex instead of the gender with which they identify. The measure is called the Kentucky Student Privacy Act and it would let transgendered students with written parental consent request schools to provide “the best available accommodations.” Embry explained those options to the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.

Embry declined an idea to let students sue the school for $2,500 if they encounter another student of the opposite anatomical sex in a restroom and the school staff allowed it or failed to keep it from happening. He maintained the measure addresses issue of privacy and choice.

Henry Brousseau, a 16-year-old transgendered student from Louisville, shared his personal experiences on the delicate topic. He argued that separate is not equal when it comes to other restroom accommodations. The high school junior testified the measure would out kids like him all over again and send a message to other students that rebuke is tolerated.

Protecting the Rights of All Students

The legislation is in reaction to a policy approved by the Atherton High School site-based decision-making council to let gender non-conforming students at the Louisville school use facilities reflecting their sexual identities, not their anatomical sex. Atherton Principal Thomas Aberli said he believes this is a civil rights matter and feels the power to address it should be retained at the local level.

Several lawmakers agreed the matter should be decided by local school governing authorities instead of state legislators. Sen. Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) noted policy exercises by local school based decision-making bodies are a cornerstone of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.

But The Family Foundation of Kentucky wants the General Assembly to run interference on transgender bathroom use in schools. Senior Policy Analyst Martin Cothran explained the group’s support of the measure.

Kent Ostrander, executive director of The Family Foundation of Kentucky, argued that SB 76 is a compromise proposal to accommodate transgendered students in a reasonable way and protect the privacy rights of other students.

First-term Sen. Danny Carroll (R-Paducah) said he has a child with special needs who often requires certain accommodations. He likened his situation to the transgendered facilities issue confronting lawmakers.

Sen. Embry’s SB 76 failed to get enough votes to advance from committee. The measure earned 6 yes, 3 no and 1 pass vote. It needed seven affirmative votes to move to the full Senate.

Follow @ReneeKET on Twitter for updates throughout the day, and for a recap of the full day’s activities, watch Legislative Update, weeknights at 11 on KET. You can also follow the Kentucky General Assembly on KET’s Legislative Coverage app for your smartphone or tablet.