Senate strikes parental consent requirement from bill targeting student pronouns in schools

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Indiana Statehouse (IL file photo)

A controversial “parental rights” bill was pared down by Indiana senators on Thursday to remove a provision that would have required schools get consent from parents if a student requests to change their name or pronouns.

The amended version of House Bill 1608 now stipulates that parents only must be notified within five business days about a requested name or pronoun change.

“It started out coming out of committee as (requiring) consent, and that’s important,”  Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said of the chamber’s decision to scale back the bill.

“It can be challenging, though, as you play that out,” he continued. “When you start talking about getting consent from a parent, or parents, and there’s lots of divorce situations out there where that can be contentious, and we thought, well, notification advises the parents of what’s going on, and they can then meet and engage in the school, and that’s a satisfactory result.”

An amendment adopted to the bill on Thursday also deletes language that would have protected teachers who refuse to use a name or pronouns that are inconsistent with a student’s legal name and biological sex.

The latest bill

Bray said his caucus has had “lengthy communication” with House Republicans about the changes to the bill — which is why it stalled on the chamber calendar for more than a week before it was called down for amendments.

The Senate leader said he expects the House to approve the changes, assuming the bill advances in a Senate floor vote that could come as early as next week.

“It’s a tricky issue. And there’s reasonable people who come down on both sides of that … it didn’t go necessarily along party lines,” Bray said. “There was some question out there about why are we engaging in this space at all? A number of schools wanted some guidance from the state on this because they’re all grappling with it. It’s a pretty challenging issue on the school board level, as well. So, it’s just a very difficult issue to handle and get on top of.”

The latest draft of the amended bill requires schools to inform parents if a student requests to change their name or pronouns for any reason — including to a nickname.

Although an earlier version of the bill would have blocked adherence to the student’s request without a parent’s explicit consent, bill sponsor Sen. Stacey Donato, R-Logansport, said teachers could now grant a student’s request as long as notice has already been given to a parent.

Previous language would have additionally prevented schools from disciplining teachers that still use a child’s old name or pronouns — even with parental permission to use the new, preferred versions — if the employee or staff member does so out of a “religious conviction.” That part of the bill is gone, too.

The bill retains language that would also prohibit instruction on “human sexuality” for students in Pre-K through 3rd grade, although sexual education typically does not start until the fourth or sixth grades under existing state standards.

Private schools are exempted from the language restricting “human sexuality.”

Three separate amendments offered by Democrats failed, however.

One proposed change would have given students a chance to rescind their name or pronoun change request in an attempt to give them more time to consider whether or not they want their parents to be notified.

Another would have ensured that school psychologists, social workers, nurses, and counselors would not be forced to violate their professional codes of conduct and ethics to adhere to the bill’s provisions. The bill already says that school staff are not required to break federal laws in order to be compliant.

Sen. Shelli Yoder. D-Bloomington, suggested  that — if lawmakers are going to regulate pronouns — they should crack down on words like “mankind” and “manmade,” or phrases like, “Hey, guys,” when addressing groups of students.

“If this is such an issue, when referring to people by their biological sex, then I think language must matter, and we should cease from doing it,” Yoder said. The amendment failed in a voice vote.

Still, Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said he was “surprised” the GOP caucus supported the changes made to the bill.

“I don’t understand it … it’s causing problems,” Taylor said of the bill overall. “Young people have to make the hard decision to even come out and express how they feel. Then we’re going to make it even harder by saying, ‘If you tell me in confidence, and I’m somebody you trust, I have no choice but to inform your parents.’ Now why would a child tell their teacher first before they tell their parents if they really believe that their parent was going to be accepting?”

Bill author Rep. Michelle Davis, R-Whiteland, maintains that her proposal intends to “empower Hoosier parents by reinforcing that they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to introducing sensitive topics to their children.”

Critics of the bill have argued that it’s part of a nationwide wave of legislation “singling out LGBTQ+ people and their families.” Supporters say parents have the “right” and “responsibility” to control what their children learn — and are called — when at school.

The proposal is reminiscent of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that has been described by some as one of the most “hateful” pieces of legislation in the country.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.

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