The Education Department is considering new rules restricting school library content and requiring school staff to inform parents of major changes to a student’s identity at school.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters announced the proposals as one of his first major actions after taking office in January.
Some parents and advocates are concerned the rules, if implemented, would be harmful to LGBTQ students and undermine trust in school staff, especially librarians and counselors. Districts already have policies in place to review and reevaluate library materials, and most of the targeted library materials center LGBTQ characters or themes.
The parental rights proposal would require public school staff, including school counselors, to report when a student uses a different name, pronouns or other aspects of social transition to their parents, regardless of the potential harm they face at home.
Public hearings on the rules will be held Friday, and comments can also be submitted to the department in writing. After the public comment period, the rules will be considered by the state Board of Education and, if adopted, would move to the Legislature for final approval.
“As this rule is written, to force school educators and staff to potentially ‘out’ students based on any presumption about their gender identity, (it) could be really dangerous for a lot of vulnerable young people, whether or not they are transgender,” said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an Oklahoma City-based organization that advocates for people who are 2SLGBTQ+.
Walters, in a Feb. 15 press release, said the parent’s rights rule proposal is meant to reinforce the Oklahoma Parents’ Bill of Rights, a law passed by the Legislature in 2014.
“Questions of sex, morality, or religion will only be decided by Oklahoma parents – not the government,” Walters said in a written statement. Walters did not respond to an Oklahoma Watch interview request made Tuesday through his press secretary.
Walters’ rule proposal requires a school district to disclose to a child’s parent or guardian material changes regarding their child’s health, social or psychological development, including name or pronoun changes at school or other aspects of social transitioning.
How the Public Can Provide Input
Comments can be submitted by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or made in person at the public hearings. At 10 a.m. Friday, the department will hear comments on school library content and at 2 p.m. Friday, the department will hear comments on parents’ rights. The deadline for written comments is 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Hearings will be held at the Hodge Building, 2500 N Lincoln Blvd., in Oklahoma City.
Another hearing will be held at 10 a.m. Monday for miscellaneous changes, mostly to comply with recent laws, and at 2 p.m. Monday to consider making permanent the temporary rules in place requiring students to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate and outline potential penalties for schools that do not comply.
But that goes beyond the Parents’ Bill of Rights. And bills containing similar language have failed in the Legislature. A 2021 bill sponsored by Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, would have banned teaching “gender and sexual diversity” in schools, was amended to include a provision that would require teachers to notify parents or guardians if they believe a student is gay or transgender. The bill failed to advance to the House floor.
“This seems like an attempt to move this really harmful proposal through a different body with less scrutiny than it received at the legislature,” McAfee said.
Administrative rules carry the effect of law but are written by state agencies. The rulemaking process, outlined in state law, usually attracts little public comment. These proposals have drawn at least 900 public comments, according to counts by Freedom Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, a volunteer group that advocates for policies that support public schools.
Sherri Brown, legislative chair for Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, said she has a lot of concerns about the proposals, but especially the lack of due process. Under the rules, school districts that do not comply with the rules could have their accreditation downgraded, but there’s not a way for them to respond to allegations.
Brown, and others, also say the proposals expand beyond the department’s authority.
“This seems, to me, to be a total overreach of this agency in establishing rules that are really more like laws,” Brown said. “That pattern really concerns me that our current superintendent thinks that’s his role.”
The department is considering four separate proposals.
• A rule that would ban from schools pornographic and sexualized content (defined as not pornographic but containing excessive sexual material in light of the youngest age of students with access to the material.) It would also require schools to submit a complete list of library materials annually by Oct. 1 and have a written policy for reviewing library material.
• A rule requiring schools to notify parents of any sex education material and affirm the parent’s right to inspect the material. Parents can object to all or part of the material and schools must honor partial objections to “the extent reasonably feasible.” (Sex education is not mandatory in Oklahoma, but is taught in many public schools.) The rule would prohibit school staff from “encouraging, coercing or attempting to encourage or coerce a student” from withholding information from their parents and require schools to disclose to parents “material changes reasonably expected to be important to parents regarding their child’s health, social or psychological development, including identity information” which includes names or pronouns used at school or other aspects of gender transition.
• A handful of miscellaneous changes, mostly due to new laws, to driver’s education, state testing for immigrant students, adjunct teachers, and concurrent enrollment.
• A rule making permanent the emergency rules in place to govern school bathroom use. It requires schools to designate multi-person restrooms as exclusively for male or female students and provide access to a single-stall restroom for those who don’t want to use the shared restroom.
The full text of the rules is available on the department’s website.