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Confusion and fear abound as JCPS grapples with how to implement new anti-LGBTQ+ law

 A large group of protestors hold up colorful signs that support trans rights and decry Senate Bill 150, which became law after the 2023 legislative session.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
Protesters demanded the Jefferson County Board of Education refuse to comply with new state restrictions on transgender kids.

With weeks to go before the school year begins, teachers and parents in Jefferson County Public Schools are asking how Senate Bill 150 will affect them.

When Jefferson County Public Schools opens its doors to students again next month, the district is supposed to have new policies in place restricting bathroom access for transgender students and curbing classroom speech on sexuality and gender. Those policies are required under Senate Bill 150, passed by the GOP-led Kentucky Legislature this March.

As the Jefferson County Board of Education deliberates whether and how to implement new anti-LGBTQ+ policies, parents, teachers and students say they are confused and fearful.

‘It’s incredibly scary’

Outside the Jefferson County Board of Education main office building, a 6-year-old boy in a red baseball cap and Pikachu shirt was passing out fliers at a rally in May. “Trans youth belong in JCPS,” the signs read.

The boy, who is trans, was there with his parent to demand the school board refuse to comply with SB 150.

“I have a trans kid. I’m nonbinary — this changes our lives,” his parent said. They asked LPM News not to use their names or the name of their son’s JCPS elementary school in order to protect them and their family from doxxing.

So far, their son’s school has been very good at affirming him, they said. They chose the school based on advice from other parents who know through experience which JCPS schools are most affirming and least affirming of trans kids.

“He has been wishy-washy with gender for a couple years and adamantly came out around Thanksgiving,” they said.

In November his parent quickly arranged a meeting with school administrators and talked through changes to his name and pronouns, along with new bathroom arrangements. He uses the gender-neutral bathroom in the nurse’s office for now.

“The school has been phenomenally supportive,” his parent said. “I don’t have enough good things to say.”

But no matter how supportive the school wants to be, under SB 150, there are new limits. If one day their child wants to use the boys bathroom, he won’t be able to, and teachers and staff will be allowed to intentionally misgender him. Those kind of actions are linked to mental health problems and higher suicide rates among trans youth.

“It’s incredibly scary as a parent,” the boy’s parent said.

Some Louisville parents of trans and nonbinary students have opted for private schools that are explicitly accepting of LGBTQ+ students, like Francis Parker School.

But that’s not possible for this family. First grade tuition at Francis Parker costs almost $24,000 a year.

“I’m a single parent, and I have access to only so much,” they said. “Public school is there for people, and it should be there for all people.”

They said they’d like to see the district refuse to comply with the bathroom restrictions in SB 150 — a possibility the board is actually considering.

The board is weighing two possible responses to the bathroom provisions. One draft would openly defy the law, on the grounds that it violates the U.S. Constitution. The other version would comply, but allow parents to have the final word on the “biological sex” of their child for restroom and locker room purposes, in lieu of a birth certificate.

Books pulled from the shelves

While the bathroom and pronoun measures have parents worried, many teachers are also concerned and confused about speech restrictions in the law.

When SB 150 passed in March, JCPS elementary school librarian Kelly Bowles wanted to know what it meant for her library.

Supporters of SB 150 say certain provisions are meant to curb classroom discussions about sexuality and gender. School districts are directed to create policies that prohibit “any instruction or presentation that has a goal or purpose of students studying or exploring gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”

Bowles is a former attorney who lost a bid for Jefferson County District Court judge in 2022. She said the language of the SB 150 is so vague, she had trouble deciphering what was legal and what wasn’t under its restrictions.

Soon after the measure passed, a parent contacted Bowles to question her reading of “Jack (not Jackie),” a children’s picture book about a sister and her trans brother.

“The parent wasn’t overly mad,” Bowles said. “Just kind of curious why I would be reading that.”

 Two adult women pose for a photo with three laughing young children.
submitted
/
courtesy of Kelly Bowles
JCPS librarian Kelly Bowles (right) with her spouse Madelyn Spalding and their three children.

Bowles said she reached out to a JCPS assistant superintendent for guidance, and he told her to remove books that featured LGBTQ+ characters and themes until they better understood the law.

“It was just so painful,” Bowles said. “I remember actually tearing up over the fact that, ‘What if this is happening at my own children’s school where they’re not going to see pictures of their family on the shelves?’”

Bowles is married to a trans woman. They have three young children together.

Within hours, the district reversed course. Bowles got to put the books back that very day. But she’s still not sure if she’s allowed to teach from them when students return in August.

Bowles’ spouse Madelyn Spalding is worried that without quality instruction from adults on different gender identities and sexual orientations, hate and misinformation will go unchecked in schools. She’s especially concerned that her own kids will be bullied for having a trans mom.

“Without a way to countermessage that … it leaves it up to my children to take that burden themselves and educate their peers and educate their teachers, which is emotional labor we shouldn’t ask of a child,” Spalding said.

Spalding and Bowles are also unsure if their children’s after-school club will be able to meet. Their two oldest are in their school’s “Rainbow Club,” a supportive group for LGBTQ+ students and families.

Teachers could get some clarity soon. The Jefferson County Board of Education is trying to finalize its new policy on human sexuality by the end of the summer, as directed by the Legislature.

The current draft takes advantage of a typo in the law, which allows districts to either implement broad speech restrictions on gender and sexuality — or ban sex education in elementary school. Lawmakers who sponsored the bill say they meant to ban both.

The board is holding a public hearing at 6 p.m. July 25 at the VanHoose Education Center.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Tags
News Youth ReportingJCPSLGBTQ+ Equity
Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.