The culture wars surrounding bathrooms and who gets to use them died down for a few years as states experienced economic backlash from organizations put off by the legislation and policies they inspired. But legislation and policies regarding transgender people have once again moved to the forefront, as seen in Stillwater over the past month.
It’s a nationwide trend.
On March 25, Kimberly Kindy reported in the Washington Post that the efforts of conservative organizations fighting LGBTQ rights have resulted in nearly 200 state bills being filed this year that seek to erode protections for transgender and gay youth or restrict discussion of LGBTQ topics in public schools.
Stillwater’s interim Superintendent Gay Washington previously told the News Press the district was trying to avoid getting dragged into a highly divisive issue.
Stillwater Public Schools is under fire from a group of people – a combination of student family members, local ministers and people who have no tie to the schools – who say they are concerned girls will be hurt if a transgender student is allowed to use the girls’ restroom at one of the public schools.
Rumors have swirled about a transgender student attending Stillwater Public Schools but the district has not confirmed that nor addressed the issued directly, except to clarify its policy regarding bathrooms.
On April 7, Washington sent a letter to families she said was in response to those rumors. She asked people to focus on problem solving as opposed to “us vs. them.”
The district had not had any reports of incidents taking place in the restrooms and said they would be handled as a disciplinary matter if there were, she said.
Washington said she had been getting questions about the district’s bathroom policy since February. Several people addressed the Board of Education during its March 8 meeting to question and object to what they believed was a change in district policy to allow a transgender student to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.
But Washington has said the district’s bathroom policy has been in effect since 2015. It follows guidance from the Oklahoma State School Board Association regarding the application of anti-discriminatory measures under Title IX.
A single-stall bathroom is available for any student who feels uncomfortable in the communal restroom for any reason and wants privacy, Washington said.
Since then, Ryan Walters, Gov. Kevin Stitt’s appointed Secretary of Education – an advisory position – who is seeking the elected position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has waded into the discussion, sending a letter on his state letterhead to the Stillwater Board of Education accusing it of “choosing radicals over your students, ideology over biology and “wokeness” over safety.”
He also sent a letter to Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor stating that “leftists like the ones in Stillwater are abusing court precedent … to push their agenda of letting biological males use girls’ restrooms” and urging him to “take action by any legal means necessary to protect the most vulnerable among us, our children.”
On April 8, O’Connor sent a letter to Washington saying guidance the district has likely received from the State Department of Education is not accurate.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision cited does not actually extend Title IX to areas like bathrooms and locker rooms, he wrote. Guidance from the Biden Administration is only guidance, not enforceable, and a decision in the Fourth Circuit does not apply because Oklahoma is not in the Fourth Circuit.
On April 12, 25 speakers signed up to address the Board, some to object to “boys using the girls’ bathroom” and others to ask for support and compassion for transgender students.
Before the speakers began sharing their thoughts, the members of the Board of Education made their own comments.
Outgoing Board President Camille DeYong said she had thought long and hard about what she wanted to say and she noted that the Board’s new president Tim Riley was allowing an extra minute for each commenter that night because he feels strongly that people should be heard.
“We have so many good things going on in Stillwater,” DeYong said. “The issues regarding restrooms that many people will speak about in a few minutes are not simple, although they’ve been portrayed as such. That having been said, this board is listening.
“We are listening to our constituents … Those who have called, sent emails and texts both in support of the practices we’ve had for years in the schools, as well as those who are frightened and angry. We are listening to our legal experts and guidance from state agencies, and for me, I have listened to my heart and to my pastor.”
DeYong went on to list the abusive comments she says board members and school staff have been receiving. She asked people to stop confronting the staff and school sites and to confine their criticisms and comments to the people elected to represent them on the school board.
“We have been called liars, told we need to repent, that we need to stand down and that we are possessed by the devil, among other things,” she said. “While this is not fun to hear, that’s not a problem. That’s why we were elected, to take that kind of heat. What is a problem is when one of our principals is told that he is going to hell, our teachers are questioned about their beliefs and our students are put in the position of trying to defend ideas they may or may not agree with or even understand. We have six weeks of school left … Let’s focus on what we can all agree on, student safety. Please, please, please refrain from contacting anyone in our central office, our administrators at the sites, our teachers, our staff, and most importantly, our kids. Send emails, texts and calls to us. Let our schools finish out and enjoy the first normal year that we have had in a very long time.”
The SPS Board of Education has scheduled a special meeting for 5 p.m. Monday where it will discuss issuing a resolution asking the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the Oklahoma State Board of Education for clear guidance concerning the use of student restrooms and guidance on how to implement those directive. It would also ask the governor to approve any such rule.