Colorado students who are transgender and go by a name that’s not their legal one would have the right to use their preferred name at school, and teachers who disregard their wishes could face disciplinary action.
That’s the proposal outlined in draft legislation that has received preliminary approval from a committee of state lawmakers and was brought forward by high school students who are part of the Colorado Youth Advisory Council.
With the proposal, lawmakers are stepping into a polarizing issue that has erupted recently in school board contests and in school districts that have attempted to honor students’ wishes without consent from parents.
Students already have the right to use preferred names and pronouns through the state Civil Rights Commission, which says that “deliberately misusing an individual’s preferred name, form of address or gender-related pronouns” is discriminatory. But school district policies on the matter vary. A state law could create a uniform policy for districts, including a plan of action when a teacher or staff member refuses to use a students’ preferred name or pronouns.
It could also clear up confusion about what school districts are supposed to do when a student wants to use a preferred name and their parents do not.
Colorado school districts in the national spotlight
School districts in Colorado have been in the national news in recent months over their policies, including being accused of “secretly transitioning” students without telling their parents.
At Poudre School District in Fort Collins, an administrator questioned how to handle an elementary school student who wanted to use a preferred name but whose parents had directed the school to use the child’s legal name.
The district’s policy states that if a staff member deliberately or persistently refuses to use a student’s preferred gender and name, those actions are a “violation” of district guidelines and “may constitute harassment.” The policy has allowances for teachers, as well as fellow students, who accidentally use the wrong name or pronoun.
“If a student unintentionally deadnames or misgenders another student by using the other student’s incorrect name or pronouns, a staff member should correct the student to promote an environment where students are addressed in an affirming manner,” the policy states.
Boulder Valley School District’s policy, which is similar to that of Poudre Valley, was the subject of a story in the conservative Washington Examiner last year. The policy says schools should involve parents “but should first discuss the parental involvement with the student to avoid inadvertently putting the student at risk of harm.”
Boulder Valley also has a “gender support plan,” which includes a form intended to create “shared understandings about the ways in which the student’s authentic gender will be accounted for and supported at school.”
In Jeffco Public Schools, a group of parents in September accused teachers of violating privacy laws after some asked students to fill out gender identity questionnaires.
And in February, board members in Colorado Springs School District 11 suggested adding a policy that would prevent teachers and staff from asking students about their preferred pronouns. The district has 10 candidates running for four school board seats, including four who say teachers should get to choose which pronouns to use with students.
GOP lawmakers question student about parental rights
The draft legislation approved by a legislative committee that hears ideas from the Colorado Youth Advisory Council would require public schools to use a student’s preferred name and would deem a refusal to do so a form of discrimination. It also would set up a task force of school administrators, teachers and counselors who would look into the best way to notify parents about a student’s wishes, and the process to update a student’s name for use in the classroom, extracurricular activities and the yearbook.
The two Republican lawmakers on the interim committee, in exchanges with the 17-year-old senior at Manitou Springs High School who presented the bill, made it clear they believe it usurps parents’ rights.
“Do you think that it’s a good example to set to keep things like this, especially a big change, from parents?” asked Sen. Janice Rich of Grand Junction. “What if a staff member fails to use a pronoun? They could be deemed guilty by the Civil Rights Commission. The parents would get involved then — you have just sent a teacher to the Civil Rights Commission. Do you think that’s OK? And how are you going to explain that to your parents then?”
Meghan Taylor, the 17-year-old from Cascade, said school districts could tell the difference between a teacher who made a mistake and one who does it repeatedly, on purpose.
“It would go through a school system first … before any major action must be taken, and I do believe as well, it would be the student’s decision if any further action were to be taken,” she said. “So no, I don’t believe that this is lying to parents. I believe that this is protecting children.”
Taylor cited a 2020 study that found 82% of transgender people have considered suicide and 40% have attempted, but that this rate is significantly reduced when their chosen names and pronouns are respected.
“I was seeing that people and my peers were having issues with having their names nonlegally changed in their school and having great difficulty having their names and pronouns be reflected appropriately and be what they truly are,” Taylor said. “The purpose of the bill is to really cement those rights and ensure that students are able to get this help and this care that they need.”
Rep. Ron Weinberg, a Loveland Republican, said the proposed bill would lead to deceiving parents. He said that if students want to use a different name, they should have it legally changed. He also questioned what would happen if there were a school shooting and law officers were trying to account for students using their legal names.
“I think doing things behind parents’ backs pushes more into the era of being deceitful, rather than accepting,” he said. “We’re trying to solve the problem with deceit. And that haunts me a little bit.”
Taylor countered that districts would still keep legal names on file, and said that for students whose parents do not support them, school is a refuge. “Having a place such as school where that person can feel that they are a human being and feel that they are who they are,” she said. “That is vital to the life of anyone.”
The draft bill cannot be officially introduced until the legislature resumes work in January.