Arkansas House approves bathroom law barring transgender students from using a bathroom of their choice

The Arkansas House on Wednesday passed a bill barring transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice in a public school.

House Bill 1156 would require public schools and public charter schools with open enrollment to prevent people from using a toilet that does not match the gender listed on their birth certificate. The bill applies to places in schools where people are close to others “in various stages of undressing,” including toilets, locker rooms, locker rooms and multi-person shower rooms.

The bill met with opposition from parents of transgender students and activists, who called it discriminatory. Supporters praised the law, saying it protects children and protects school districts from having to enact similar policies that could open them to lawsuits.

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 80 to 10, with five members present voting. The bill will go to the Senate for consideration.

“Our schools just have to have a policy where boys go in the boys’ room and girls go in the girls’ room,” said Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, the sponsor of the bill.

For proponents, the bill aims to protect the privacy and convenience of those sharing bathrooms during school hours. The bill also requires schools to provide “reasonable accommodations” such as a private bathroom or changing area for those who are uncomfortable in a multi-person bathroom. Students traveling on school-sponsored overnight trips are also prohibited from “sharing dormitories with a member of the opposite sex” unless it is an immediate family member.

The bill is also seen as an attack on transgender students, parents of transgender children and activists to lawmakers during last week’s hearing on the bill for the gender listed on their birth certificates.

“All it will do is demonize trans kids, make them feel less safe in school, and make their lives even more difficult than they already are,” said Eric Reece, principal the Human Rights Campaign in the state of Arkansas, an LGBTQ citizens’ initiative. rights group, in a statement. “Schools should be safe and welcoming places for all children. The Arkansas Senate should refuse to send this bill to the governor’s desk.”

[DOCUMENT: Read House Bill 1156 »]

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough called the bill a distraction and said the legislature should focus on improving education in the state and not seek to force teachers and school leaders to enforce new bathroom regulations.

“Rather than focusing on keeping our schools on track, principals, principals and teachers need to focus on how to keep their bathrooms tidy,” said McCullough, a Little Rock Democrat.

Bentley claimed teachers and principals could enforce the toilet rule through their personal relationships with students. McCullough, a former teacher, responded by saying that even in the smallest school, teachers rarely know each student personally.

Schools would also be prohibited from adopting a bathroom policy that contradicts the one outlined in the bill. Superintendents, directors and teachers may be subject to a minimum fine of $1,000 and possible further disciplinary action from the Professional Licensure Standards Board for not complying with the law.

Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith, said the bill would help protect school districts that enact similar bathroom guidelines from lawsuits. In October, the Conway School Board passed a similar policy for bathrooms, which drew vocal opposition and prompted Bentley to introduce their law.

“It’s our job as adults to set boundaries,” Crawford said. “It’s our job as legislators to legislate to protect our children, so schools aren’t afraid of being sued for having toilet policies the way they’ve been since inception — male and female.”

If it becomes law, House Bill 1156 will likely go to court. Bentley said her bill will stand up to legal scrutiny and said the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a similar law in Florida. Sarah Everett, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said the legality of the bill is not clear because the Fourth and Seventh Circuit Courts of Appeals have come to “opposite conclusions.”

“If that happens, we’ll know what’s going to happen, and it won’t have anything to do with bathrooms,” McCullough said. “Somebody’s going to sue, it’s blocked, one day we’ll look it up and see that Arkansas taxpayers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.”

Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, looks at the final voting results for House Bill 1156 during Wednesday’s House session at the State Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

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