OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Department of Education is considering new rules that would limit school library content and require school personnel to notify parents of major changes in student identities 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 that the rules, if implemented, would be harmful to LGBTQ students and erode trust in school staff, especially librarians and guidance counselors. Districts already have policies in place to review and reevaluate library materials, and most targeted library materials center on LGBTQ characters or themes.
The parental rights proposal would require public school staff, including school counselors, to report to parents when a student uses a different name, pronouns or other aspects of social transition, regardless of the potential harm they face at home.
Public comments may be submitted to the department in writing. After a public comment period, the rules will be reviewed by the state Board of Education and, if passed, will go to the Legislature for final approval.
“As this rule is written, forcing school teachers and staff to potentially ‘single out’ students based on any assumption about their gender identity, (it) could be really dangerous for many vulnerable young people, regardless of whether they are transgender. or not,” said Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an Oklahoma City-based advocacy organization for 2SLGBTQ+ people.
Walters, in a Feb. 15 news release, said the proposed parents’ rights rule aims to strengthen the Oklahoma Parents’ Bill of Rights, a law passed by the Legislature in 2014.
“Issues of sex, morality or religion will be decided only by the parents of Oklahoma – 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’ proposed rule requires a school district to disclose to a child’s parent or guardian material changes related to their child’s health, social or psychological development, including name or pronoun changes at school or other aspects of social transition.
But it 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, that would have banned teaching about “gender and sexuality diversity” in schools has been amended to include a provision that would require teachers to notify parents or guardians if they believe a student is gay or transgender person. The bill failed to pass the House.
“This seems like an attempt to move this really harmful proposal through another body with less scrutiny than it received in the Legislature,” McAfee said.
Administrative rules have the effect of law, but are written by state agencies. The rulemaking process, described in state law, usually attracts little public comment. The proposals drew at least 900 public comments, according to figures from Freedom Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, a volunteer group that advocates for policies that support public schools.
Sherri Brown, chairwoman of the Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee, said she has many concerns about the proposals, but particularly the lack of due process. Under the rules, school districts that don’t follow the rules can have their accreditation reduced, but there is no way to respond to the allegations.
Brown, and others, also say the proposals expand beyond the department’s jurisdiction.
“It seems to me that this is a complete overreach by this agency in establishing rules that look more like laws,” Brown said. “That pattern really worries me because our current superintendent thinks that’s his role.”
The department is considering four separate proposals.
• A rule that would ban pornographic and sexualized content in schools (defined as not pornographic but containing excessively sexual material in light of the youngest age of students who have access to the material.) It would also require schools to submit a complete list of library materials annually by October 1 and have a written policy for reviewing library materials.
• A rule requiring schools to notify parents of any sexuality education material and affirming parents’ right to review the material. Parents can object to all or part of the material, and schools must honor partial objections “to the extent reasonably practicable”. (Sex education is not mandatory in Oklahoma, but is taught in many public schools.) The rule would prohibit school personnel from “encouraging, coercing, or attempting to encourage or coerce a student” to withhold information from their parents and require schools to disclose to parents “material changes that would reasonably be expected to be important to parents in relation to 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 changes, mostly due to new laws, in driver’s education, state testing for immigrant students, teacher aides, and parallel enrollment.
• A rule establishing permanent emergency rules governing school bathroom use. It requires schools to designate multi-person restrooms as exclusively for students or students and to provide access to a single-stall restroom for those who do not wish to use a shared restroom.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative reporting on public policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state. Ari Fife and Paul Monies contributed to this report.