AG Kobach is telling schools they must out trans kids to parents, even with no specific law
photo by: John Hanna/AP
Story updated at 3:16 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9:
TOPEKA — Kansas’ attorney general is telling public schools they’re required to tell parents their children are transgender or nonbinary even if they’re not out at home, though Kansas is not among the states with a law that explicitly says to do that.
Republican Kris Kobach’s action was his latest move to restrict transgender rights, following his successful efforts last year to temporarily block Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration from changing the listings for sex on transgender people’s birth certificates and driver’s licenses to reflect their gender identities. It’s also part of a trend of GOP attorneys general asserting their authority in culture war issues without a specific state law.
Kobach maintains that failing to disclose when a child is socially transitioning or identifying as nonbinary at school violates parents’ rights. He sent letters in December to six school districts and the state association for local school board members, then followed up with a public statement Thursday after four districts, all in northeast Kansas, didn’t rewrite their policies.
The Kansas attorney general’s letters to superintendents of three Kansas City-area districts, Topeka’s superintendent and the Kansas Association of School Boards accused them of having “surrendered to woke gender ideology.” His letters didn’t say what he would do if they didn’t specifically require teachers and administrators to out transgender and nonbinary students.
LGBTQ+ rights advocates saw the letters as seeking policies that put transgender and nonbinary youth in physical danger but also as an attempt to tell transgender people that they’re not welcome. Jordan Smith, leader of the Kansas chapter of the LGBTQ+ rights group Parasol Patrol, said forced outing will create more anxiety for students and even push some back into the closet.
“It’s like they don’t want us to exist in public places,” said Smith, who is nonbinary.
Five states have laws requiring schools to inform parents if their children use different pronouns, socially transition to a gender different than the one assigned at birth or present as nonbinary, according to the Movement Advancement Project, which supports transgender rights. Another six have laws that encourage it, the project says.
Kansas is on neither list. A bill introduced last year would bar schools from using the preferred pronouns for a student under 18 without a parent or guardian’s written permission, but it did not clear a Senate committee.
GOP lawmakers did enact a law over Kelly’s veto that ended the state’s legal recognition of transgender and nonbinary identities by defining male and female for legal purposes based on a person’s “reproductive anatomy” identified at birth. But Republican state Sen. Renee Erickson of Wichita, a vocal supporter and a former middle school principal, said it does not cover issues about whether schools must inform parents about a child’s gender identity at school.
Erickson said she now favors taking a look at the bill before a Senate committee, saying it addresses a “policy gap.”
“The parents have a right to know what is affecting their child,” she said.
In 2022 a federal judge hearing a northeast Kansas teacher’s lawsuit concluded that her school district’s policy of not informing parents of a child’s gender identity at school without their consent violated a parent’s constitutional right to raise children as they see fit. The district settled the case, paid the teacher $95,000 and revoked the policy.
The judge said parents’ constitutional rights include a say “in what a minor child is called and by what pronouns they are referred.”
But Kobach cited neither that case nor Kansas law in his letters to the state school boards association, the Topeka school district and the Kansas City, Shawnee Mission and Olathe districts in the Kansas City area. Instead he cited U.S. Supreme Court decisions going back as far as 1923 that he said affirmed parents’ rights. His office released copies Thursday.
He told each district that its policies on transgender students violated parents’ rights and said two other districts in the Wichita area quickly rewrote their policies after his letter arrived. In his letter to the school boards group, he noted it provides legal help to local districts.
In each letter he said withholding such information from parents would be “arrogant beyond belief.”
State attorneys general serve as the lead lawyers for state governments, and most also oversee at least some criminal prosecutions. But they also look outward, and Kobach’s letters weren’t the first to issue warnings not grounded in a specific state law.
Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita launched an online form Tuesday to gather complaints about “objectionable curricula, policies, or programs affecting children” in education. His office said it will follow up on submissions that may violate Indiana law but added that materials don’t have to meet that criterion to be posted for people to review.
Last year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent requests to at least two medical providers that don’t operate in his state for information about providing gender-affirming care as part of an investigation, though it’s not clear what Texas law would cover them. Washington state’s attorney general invoked a law there to block Seattle Children’s Hospital from complying, and QueerMed, a Georgia-based telehealth provider, said on its website that it will not comply.
photo by: John Hanna/AP
As for Kobach, Tom Alonzo, a Kansas City LGBTQ+ rights advocate, argued that the attorney general is bent on “intentional marginalization” of transgender people. Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said Kobach is ignoring students’ right to privacy and called the attorney general’s stance “cruel” and “dangerous.”
While the Kansas City district declined to comment, the other three districts said they deal with transgender and nonbinary students case by case and seek to work with parents. The Topeka district expressed confidence that its practices are legal. The four districts are among the largest in Kansas and together have more than 88,000 students or 18% of the total for the state’s public schools.
The strongest response came from Michelle Hubbard, the Shawnee Mission superintendent, in December. She chided Kobach for not citing actual cases in the district of parents’ rights being violated and suggested that he was relying on “misinformation” from “partisan sources.”
“We are not caricatures from the polarized media, but rather real people who work very hard in the face of intense pressure on public schools,” Hubbard wrote.