The Board of Education is expected to vote Thursday on new rules governing how schools handle student identities proposed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters. 

The rules would require school staff, including counselors, to inform parents when a student uses a different name, pronoun or other aspects of social transition, regardless of the potential harm they face at home. 

Speaking about the rules were educators, parents, students and young Oklahomans, many of whom told personal stories of harm when they were outed as gay or transgender by someone else. Dozens of people spoke at a hearing for public comment Friday, and hundreds more submitted written comments to the department. 

Two of the six board members attended; Walters did not. A spokesman for the department said he was in rural Oklahoma meeting with families but would be briefed on the hearing and have access to video of the proceeding. 

Here are what some of the commenters had to say. Statements were edited lightly for clarity. 

Erika Wright, public school parent and advocate for rural schools: “Is it really a hearing if no one’s here to hear the voices of the people who want to weigh in on this? No, it’s not. I understand that some of these other board members have day jobs and it doesn’t always work out to make every meeting. I get that. But the fact that Superintendent Walters is not sitting in that chair right now is infuriating to me because all these people have taken time from their spring breaks or their jobs, on both sides of this issue, to be here. And this is his job. He is paid — actually twice — to be here to listen to parents. And he talks a lot about parent empowerment and empowering parents to use their voices, but yet he’s not even here at the hearing to hear.” 

Justin Reedy, public school parent: “I wanted to share a story from somebody who wasn’t able to be here today. So these words are theirs. My name is Alex and I’m non-binary. I’ve known I was queer since I was about 14 and I’m proud of my identity. And yet as a teen, I was afraid to tell my parents because I honestly didn’t know how they would react. At that time there were only two adults I trusted. They helped me work out what to do; how to approach this. Both were teachers. When I did come out, it went well because I had support and the time to prepare. Not a very traumatic story, is it? Well, many of my peers weren’t so lucky. Usually, when they got outed before they were ready, it went really badly.

“Please listen to these three stories about people I loved. Ashley’s mother totally isolated her for months after her relative outed her. She was cut off from all peers and from the LGBTQ support group she secretly attended. I called an ambulance for her when she attempted suicide and called me secretly to say goodbye. She survived. I don’t know if she went on to live a happy life. I was actually never able to speak to her again. Daniel was rejected by his family and faith community as someone outed him to his mildly abusive father. He became homeless at 16. The last I heard he was going to live in a different state with a guy he barely knew. His name was too common for me to find him. Jamie’s mother found a single pro-LGBT flier in her room. Her father beat her legs bloody. When she went to her pastor for help, she was told to submit to his abuse. She didn’t want to call the police because she was a frightened child who loved her father and had no idea what her options were. She’s doing well but it’s taken years for her to recover.

“Those stories of kids who couldn’t control when and to whom they disclosed their identity are the kinds of stories created when kids are forcibly outed.”

Kevan Dunkelberg, art teacher:  “I can tell you firsthand that the fear that these students have is very, very real. That’s why one in five transgender youth in this country attempted suicide last year. This is not about indoctrination, it’s not about grooming. Whatever buzzword you want to use. I can’t even get most of my students to stay off their phones during class. I’m not indoctrinating anybody. I’ve never once told a student to tell their parent. I’ve never told them not to tell their parents. The only thing that I do is listen and I make sure that they know that my classroom is gonna be the place where they can come, whoever, whatever, they are. And I’m gonna be there to listen. And that’s all we as educators want to do. We already have the Parents Bill of Rights that passed in 2014. We don’t need rules codified in the law to tell educators what our position is. Please keep the culture wars out of our classrooms and trust us to do our jobs.” 

Sergio Ruben Martinez, queer man who attended Oklahoma City Public Schools: “It is unbelievable to me that this body is spending time, energy and resources to actively hurt children when your whole ethos is that you want to protect children. I have never seen anything in my entire life move with such blatant disregard for the rights and safety of minors before. It is your duty and it is your sole responsibility to advance the care, the conditions and what children come out to be in life after school. … And so either you are going to admit that you know now what the repercussions of this is going to be and you simply don’t care that it’s going to destroy the lives of youth, it is going to cause death and is going to cause harm to my community, or you stand with us in solidarity and fight back.”

Parents and educators attend a public hearing on rules to restrict library content and limit student privacy at schools at the State Education Department on Friday, March 17, 2023. Just two board members attended; shown (bottom left) is Suzanne Reynolds. (Jennifer Palmer/Oklahoma Watch)

Janice Danforth, chair of the Tulsa County chapter of Moms for Liberty, an organization that advocates for parents’ rights: “We are not here talking about adults. We are here talking about children. Keeping parents out of the loop with something so impactful in a child’s future as changing their sex or questioning their gender is not only a disrespect, it’s purposefully destroying and discrediting the family bond. A child’s parent, for the most part, is going to be his or her greatest support system. I’m aware there are exceptions to that rule.” 

Michelle McCane, librarian in Tulsa Public Schools: “Students are not being encouraged by school staff to keep important information like this from their families. In fact, teachers frequently seek out parents, families, school counselors and social workers to facilitate these kinds of conversations. As an educator, I always seek parent and family input when appropriate. And I consider parents and families a vital part of the team tasked with educating your child. And my children’s teachers have done the same. Currently, student and family information is only provided on a limited basis to those staff members who require it. These rules will change this because the rule requires schools and districts to make private student and family information available to every district staff member from custodians and bus drivers to district administration in order for school staff to police student identities and contact families.

“Do you expect us to call home every time an elementary student makes a flower ring on the playground and says they married their classmate? Do we need to call home when teenage students experience a breakup or when they’re asked to prom? LGBTQIA+ students are not keeping this kind of information a secret from their loving, accepting parents.”

Brian Shellem, public school parent and candidate for Edmond mayor: “Ultimately, the parents are the authority of their children. I think some of the people on the other side think that parents don’t love their kids. I think almost all parents love their kids. Even the reactions that they might get that may not be affirming show that there’s an emotional response. I was just reading an article, in fact, in Michigan, there were parents who were charged for a mass shooting in a school and they were trying to hold those parents accountable for the actions of that teenager. So the question becomes if those parents aren’t responsible for that action how are they not gonna be responsible for these other actions? So ultimately, the parents should be informed and they are the ultimate authority when it comes with their children. We don’t let children buy cigarettes, alcohol, they can’t enter into a contract. They’re not at the age of consent to do these things. So ultimately the parents are in charge. We need to be supporting parents’ rights. Parents love their children. They want what’s best for their children. Not everyone handles things the right way. We know that. Obviously, we wouldn’t have DHS if that were the case. So everyone here is trying to work for the same thing. But ultimately parents need to be notified of the things that are going on in school with their kids.”

Rev. Diana Davies, lead minister at First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City: “My faith tells me that every child is a child of the holy and that the right to determine one’s own identity is the most sacred and fundamental of all rights. Children of many faiths attend public schools. By telling them that they are not worthy of determining for themselves the most fundamental aspect of being human. Namely what one believes and who one is. And their heart of hearts, you would be stripping them of their right to practice their own faith.

“You would be stripping them of those unalienable rights that are enshrined in our country’s Declaration of Independence, namely life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are not restricted only to people over the age of 18. They are not restricted to evangelical Christians. They are not restricted to people who have the wherewithal to take their children out of public schools. Every child has the right to live their life in a way that is not a lie. Just to make some people feel more comfortable in their own personal beliefs. Every child has the right to be free from being terrorized at school, free from feeling that even the most trusted adults in their lives may turn on them and hurt them. Every child has the right to pursue their own happiness. Every child has the right to experience joy in their life. I am pleading with you, do not take these rights away from our precious children. Do not trample on my faith so that you can enshrine your own as the only one of value. Do not do that, and then dare to say that you believe in democracy, that you believe in freedom of religion, that you believe in the value of children’s lives.”

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC.

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