State Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, made it clear early in the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee meeting Tuesday that no one would get everything they wanted in a draft bill to ban the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity themes to children in kindergarten through third grade.
The bill also would compel school districts to notify parents immediately of any change in “services or monitoring” related to their students’ mental, emotional or physical health.
Brown’s prediction could not have been more accurate.
The committee voted to split the Parental Rights in Education bill, then kill the aspect of the bill pertaining to the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity themes to young children.
Tuesday’s vote determined whether the Education Committee would take up the draft legislation as a committee-sponsored bill, so only the parental notification aspect of the proposal will be considered for committee sponsorship when the committee meets in November.
Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, who brought an identical bill during the recent legislative session and is leading the effort on the new bill, said although frustrating, he’ll introduce legislation targeting sexual orientation and gender identity himself in the 2024 session.
By splitting his bill and rejecting those elements, “the committee made it a lot more difficult than it needed to be,” he said.
But he also said that will make it easier to pass the parental notification aspect of the bill through the Education Committee. Committee-sponsored bills tend to have a greater chance of passing than individual bills.
Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, opposed Biteman’s bill and considers Tuesday’s outcome a victory.
“It was a win for democracy, the Constitution and the people of Wyoming,” she said.
The teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in Wyoming schools and libraries, and how much access parents should get to their children’s health records in schools, have been major issues in recent years.
“It is happening here,” Cheyenne resident Mark Moody told the committee.
Biteman described the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity as parts of a culture war headed toward Wyoming whether the state’s residents like it or not.
Multiple teachers testified against the bill, saying it addresses an issue that doesn’t exist in K-3 curriculum.
Kathy Scigliano, chairwoman of the Laramie County Moms For Liberty chapter, said although most of her members don’t believe these issues are being taught in Wyoming schools, there is a concern they will be.
“If it’s not a standard that’s clarified in the future, we could see that coming down the pipeline that could see the lines blurred a bit in the future,” she said.
Kemmerer resident Laura Pearson took it one step farther and said not blocking these subjects from being taught in Wyoming schools would be an “intentional omission.”
Ammon Medina, a parent of a nonbinary student, said his child felt valued when the teacher agreed to call her student by “they” and “them” pronouns.
Some like Cheyenne resident Marcie Kindred criticized Biteman for copying the text of an identical bill passed in Florida. Moody said this should serve as motivation for Wyoming to take action on the matter because the Cowboy State is 10 times more conservative than the Sunshine State.
“Let’s follow the lead of Gov. (Ron) DeSantis of what they’ve done in Florida,” he said.
Grady Hutcherson, president of the Wyoming Education Association, said he’s not sure what the bill aims to accomplish and believes it will have a chilling effect on teachers, impacting their teaching topics they are lawfully allowed to. He said it’s impossible to appease all parents in a single classroom.
Tate Mullen, government relations director for the WEA, said it’s important students see themselves in the books they read. He also said Biteman’s bill will raise discriminatory issues with the 14th Amendment.
Rep. Ryan Berger, R-Evanston, asked Mullen if the bill would make it illegal for Berger, a special education teacher, to correct a student who refers to him as “Mrs.” Mullen said the act of correcting this would become illegal if the bill passes.
Others testified that Wyoming could open itself up to countless legal battles if passes the legislation.
Hutcherson used the example of a male student bringing a doll to school and a teacher being uncertain how to explain this to other students. Biteman said moving away from an issue like this entirely will help remediate potential bullying.
Mary Schmidt, a Natrona County School District board member, said bringing gender identity into a bullying scenario is an unnecessary use of resources and that individual school boards could already establish policies that match Biteman’s bill anyway.
Rep. Brown found fault with this argument, questioning how the bill affects a bullying situation when it is specifically addressed toward school curriculum. Brown believes there is a misconception of what the bill actually does and that it does not restrict personal conversations as some believe.
“I feel like the black helicopters are slightly circling around on this bill,” Brown said.
Determining the standards for what age is appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students to learn these topics would be established by the Wyoming State Board of Education.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said the Legislature is charged with managing schools on a routine basis, so he doesn’t understand why their purview wouldn’t extend to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Why isn’t that as constitutionally justified as saying you ought to teach reading,” he said. “They seem to me to be directly parallel.”
Tania Hytrek, an operations administrator for the Legislative Service Office, said the act of requiring certain school curriculum isn’t unconstitutional, but there is legal precedent teaching these subjects would be considered protected speech.
Biteman said there is court precedent supporting the bill as well, citing a case of an Illinois teacher who was fired for stating in the classroom that she opposed the Iraq War. Later in the meeting, Rothfuss countered this example and said Biteman’s bill would amount to taking a viewpoint position in the classroom.
Instruction Vs. Discussion
A few of the teachers who testified before the committee said the bill would make it illegal to discuss the gender of students’ parents in the classroom.
Ryan McKenzie, who identified himself as a gay teacher, said students and teachers with LGBTQ parents and spouses would not be able to discuss their family members at school under Biteman’s proposal.
Another teacher, Dylan Ford, said the vagueness of the bill could create doubt for teachers, not that it necessarily enforces it.
Brown suggested changing language in the bill to a narrower scope by prohibiting “classroom discussion” to “classroom instruction” of the hot-button topics, a measure Scigliano said she would support.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, asked Schmidt if she would prefer local control on this issue or a one-size-fits-all statewide approach. Schmidt said she would prefer local control on all educational issues, but also admitted the majority of her board doesn’t share her viewpoints.
Some said schools should have the option to let parents “opt in” to the teaching of sexual orientation of gender identity rather than the current “opt out” practice.
Brown said he believes issues like this should be addressed in local school districts.
“At what point do we say we are trusting the local school board to make this decision?” he questioned.
Rep. Martha Lawley, R-Worland, believes Biteman’s bill separately includes classroom instruction in addition to determining parental rights, which she described as an “incongruency.” She still voted in support of the bill.
To Kick The Can Or Not
Lawley offered the idea of moving the bill forward to another meeting, but with the contingency of an amendment being added that would split it. Scott supported this effort, saying it would create a much better amendment and discussion.
Provenza, Rothfuss and Brown also favored splitting it, but wanted to take final action on the bill Tuesday.
“We spent most of this day on a topic that wasn’t one of our interim topics, taking away from discussing mental health,” Rothfuss said. “I am not agreeing to move the entire bill to the next meeting.”
He said if the next discussion of the bill is pushed to the committee’s meeting in November, it wouldn’t leave enough time to talk about it and others at that meeting.
Brown motioned to immediately separate the parental notices and teaching aspects of the bill.
The motion passed with Biteman and a few others in opposition.
Education Committee Co-Chairman Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, then made a motion to delay discussing the parental notices bill to the November meeting, which passed.
Provenza then made her motion to not adopt the bill as an Education Committee bill, which failed 6-6.
Another motion was made to adopt it as a committee bill, resulting in another 6-6 vote, leading to its demise.
Brown said he voted against this aspect of the bill because he wants it discussed by the entire Legislature.
The parental notifications aspect of the bill drew much less opposition than whether to teach sexual orientation or gender identity.
Notification would compel school districts to notify parents immediately of any change in “services or monitoring” related to their students’ mental, emotional or physical health.
The bill states that before administering a student well-being questionnaire or health screening, each school district shall provide the questionnaire or information to a parent or guardian and obtain the parent's or guardian's permission.
Mullen said these screenings often serve as a valuable tool for identifying abuse at home. If a parent opts out of the screenings, this would be lost.
“Again, putting students at risk,” he said.
It also requires each school district to adopt procedures for a parent or guardian to file a complaint with the district about its non-compliance with the new law.
If the school district does not address and/or resolve the issues brought in the complaint, a parent can request a hearing before an independent hearing officer through the Office of Administrative Hearings, who shall determine facts relating to the dispute over the school district's compliance.
In Rock Springs, two parents are asking a federal court to stop their school district from allegedly helping to socially gender-transition their high school student. One of these parents, Ashley Willey, testified virtually before the committee and said she wasn’t informed of these efforts by the school.
“It is not the school district or the school’s responsibility to teach this to my children,” she said.
Wyoming Family Alliance For Freedom, a newly formed group that opposes book banning efforts, helped rally dozens of people to attend Tuesday’s meeting.
Nathan Winters, president of the Wyoming Family Alliance, clarified for the board that the Family Alliance For Freedom is completely separate from his.
“That is not us,” Winters said. “We are for this bill.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.