Katy Independent School District trustees narrowly voted Monday to enact several restrictions on how employees can handle gender identity matters after listening to over four hours of public testimony overwhelmingly against the measure.

In a heated 4-3 vote, Katy board members approved a new policy that requires district employees to inform parents if a student requests to “be identified as transgender, change his or her name, or use different pronouns at school,” among other mandates. The policy also requires that students use bathrooms corresponding with their sex assigned at birth, with limited exceptions.

Roughly 90 community members spoke in front of the board about the new policy, some of whom called it an “attack” on LGBTQ+ students and a “sharp turn in a dangerous direction.” A smaller share of supporters said the policy protects parents’ rights and keeps gender identity issues out of schools.

The vote is Katy’s latest move that solidifies its alignment with more-conservative voters in the nearly 90,000-student district. In recent years, the board has tackled hot-button social issues in a way that has outraged Democrat-aligned community members. 

The four-page gender identity policy, released publicly one week ago, prohibits employees from asking for a student’s preferred pronouns; allows staff members to refuse a student’s request to be identified differently; and bans employees from teaching or sharing any information about “gender fluidity.”  

The measure also allows Katy administrators to discipline employees that encourage students to “withhold information from their parent.” Similar policies in districts across the country have sparked a national debate over how much information teachers should be required to share with parents about a student’s gender identity. 

Proponents of those policies say parents, rather than teachers, should be the sole decision-makers for their child. Critics argue schools should provide children with a safe place to express themselves, and that it can be harmful to expose a child’s gender identity to unsupportive families.

During a debate of the policy among trustees, Board President Victor Perez said the measure centers parent authority. Trustee Morgan Calhoun said she doesn’t want to dismiss the parental rights of most Katy parents by catering to the relatively small transgender student population in the district. 

“There is pressure from our children that we do need to protect them,” Calhoun said. “We are putting our daughters, our kids, our parents first. Our parents are the ones who sit in the front seat of this.”

Three trustees attempted to thwart the measure by voting to table it. Trustee Lance Redmon argued more discussion of the policy was necessary because board members were confused about its content. Trustee Rebecca Fox voiced concern about potentially costly legal challenges to the policy.

“I’m very disappointed that this board is in a hurry to push through a policy that has clearly been shown that it has significant problems,” Fox said. 

Monday’s vote marks another controversial issue taken on by Katy officials in recent years. Over the summer, the board was embroiled in a monthslong book-banning backlash, which culminated in trustees expanding their power to remove books from libraries.  

Many attendees blasted trustees for tangling themselves up again in political culture wars. Katy parent Angie Waller said the board’s focus on book-banning, pronouns and gender identity distracts from providing a quality education.

“When will we get back to education?” Waller said. “We risk losing exceptional, exceptional teachers who have poured their hearts into the district and our students.”

But several more conservative-aligned attendees, like Ben Armenta, the parent of two Katy high schoolers, expressed gratitude that the board is addressing social and political issues with their policies.

“Any policy which prohibits district personnel from keeping secrets from parents is a policy that should be considered,” Armenta said. “This is not going to go away. Moms and dads like myself are going to hold the line against social indoctrination in our schools.”

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    Many of those opposing the policy cited statistics that show LGBTQ+ youth are at higher risk for mental health issues than their peers. Parent Anne Marie Barrios said the risks presented in these statistics would directly impact Katy students in the district if schools can no longer provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ students.

    The future of LGBTQ+ student groups under the new policy also is in question. 

    The policy says no “district-sponsored extracurricular offerings adopting, supporting, or promoting gender fluidity will be used or introduced in any district classroom.” Perez said the policy only applies to classroom instruction, while some community members interpreted to include a ban on LGBTQ+ after-school organizations.

    Jarred Burton, a junior at Tompkins High School and vice president of its Sexuality and Gender Alliance, said the policy will eradicate many spaces of refuge for Katy students. 

    “As a queer student within the school district, I feel neither safe or protected by the policy,” Jarred said. “I feel targeted and attacked.”

    Supporters of Katy’s policy lauded it Monday as a preventive measure — a sentiment echoed by Perez, who said it protects teachers from having to make decisions related to students’ gender identity that they are not comfortable with.

    Katy parent Claudia Turcott said that although teachers hiding students’ gender identities from parents isn’t currently a problem in the district, she appreciates trustees getting ahead of the issue. To her, that’s “good leadership.” 

    “The overwhelming majority of parents are loving and supportive and genuinely want the best for their kids. … No policy should ever be written on the rare exception,” Turcott said. “Parents have the ultimate authority of their children and outside sources don’t get to make the call on withholding vital information from them.”

    Seven Lakes High School choir director Elizabeth Tait said the policy feels like another disrespectful blow against teachers that generally have good intentions in providing support to students. 

    Tait worries that requiring employees to notify parents of a child’s identity change would create more tasks for educators and administrators, who already don’t have much free time. 

    “The gender policy as written does give sort of the assumption that teachers would maliciously withhold information from parents,” Tait said. “I would be very cautious about adding additional barriers for teachers to connect with their students, because we are very tired.”

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    Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A painfully Midwestern native to Michigan’s capital region, Miranda studied political science pre-law...