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Kobach pressures Olathe and Shawnee Mission over LGBTQ+ policies, but districts push back

Kansas News Service/File photo

The Kansas Attorney General cited the group Parents Defending Education in letters he's sent to districts, asking them to change policies that guide teachers and staff to support students by using their preferred names and pronouns at school.

Since December, Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach has been putting pressure on a handful of Kansas school districts — including both Shawnee Mission and Olathe — to alter or rescind treatment of transgender students that he considers “woke gender ideology.”

Last week, Kobach upped that pressure with a press release identifying four school districts that he said have “dug in their heels and essentially asserted that school administrators know better than parents.”

The release, entitled “School Districts ‘Socially Transitioning’ Students without Parental Consent, Despite AG warning,” chides the Shawnee Mission, Olathe, Topeka and Kansas City, Kansas, districts for their responses to an earlier Dec. 7 letter from his office.

The December letters were initially sent to six districts and the Kansas Association of School Boards.

The content of those letters differed according to specific policies or staff guidance Kobach quoted, but a common thread was that district polices were guiding teachers and staff to be supportive of students by using their preferred names and pronouns at school.

The letters were also critical of how districts chose to handle parental involvement, implying the policies on parental notification were unclear or weak. Such policies violate parental rights, Kobach’s letters said.

District officials at Shawnee Mission and Olathe have pushed back, saying they work on a case-by-case basis for the best interest of students and their families.

The letters stem from a document on the website of Parents Defending Education updated June 2023. That group displays a list of districts across the country and purports to quote their transgender or gender nonconforming student policies.

Kobach credited the work done by Parents Defending Education in the letters he then sent to school officials.

Parents Defending Education is a 501(c)(3) that identifies itself as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.” Elsewhere, they are called a right-wing group with ties to dark money.

Kobach’s letters do not threaten legal action, next steps unclear

Kobach’s letters to the districts read like legal briefs, with extensive footnotes and a demand at the end for answers to a series of questions by Dec. 20, 2023.

There is no mention of any further legal action, and Kobach’s office did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on next steps.

In the press release last week, Kobach said two district recipients — Belle Plaine and Maize — rescinded or amended their policies after hearing from him in December.

The remaining districts “dug in their heels and essentially asserted that school administrators know better than parents,” the release said.

His letter to Shawnee Mission officials also quoted the controversial assertions made in April 2023 by Shawnee Mission North teacher Caedran Sullivan, who claimed teachers in SMSD were being told to “hide from parents the fact that their minor children are transitioning at school.”

“USD 512 (Shawnee Mission) has apparently surrendered to woke gender ideology to the point of jettisoning both propriety and common sense,” Kobach wrote.

SMSD superintendent calls Kobach’s letter “disappointing”

Between 1994 and 2019, the proportion of Shawnee Mission students who identify as white fell from roughly 91% to slightly less than 64%.
Shawnee Mission Post
Between 1994 and 2019, the proportion of Shawnee Mission students who identify as white fell from roughly 91% to slightly less than 64%.

Shawnee Mission superintendent Michelle Hubbard replied on Dec. 19 with a three-page letter of support for the district’s non-discrimination, non-harassment policy.

“Your letter appears to be primarily informed by misinformation from inconspicuously partisan sources, as well as by incorrect assumptions about our administrator guidance for working with transgender families,” she wrote.

The district has no policy specific to transgender students or disclosure to their parents, Hubbard wrote. It does have an administrative guidance document, which was quoted in the Kobach letter.

The guidance is based on the most current advice from the U.S. Department of Education on the rights and protections of transgender students, she added.

“Each transgender student is a unique individual with unique needs,” Hubbard wrote. “School administrators work with transgender students on a case-by-case basis using an approach that is appropriate for the unique circumstances.”

Any plans for transgender students are developed with both parent and student on the team, she said.

Hubbard went on to explain that it is rare that a transgender student and parent are entirely opposed to each other about school accommodations.

“More commonly, a transgender student and/or their parent approaches school staff with uncertainty and questions, and we do what we always do — we work to answer those questions and to meet the individual needs of the student in cooperation with their parents/guardians,” her letter said.

Hubbard also had some words for Kobach’s “disappointing” use of the word “woke.”

The school board is elected by the community and is diverse, as is the administration, she said.

“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 to serve our students and our families every day in compliance with applicable law,” she wrote.

Olathe officials have asked for a meeting with Kobach

Olathe district officials also said their treatment of gender identity and pronouns is case-by-case and based on internal administrative guidelines rather than a formal policy.

“As a district, it is always our intent and practice to work directly and partner with individual families and students as situations arise to ensure we are providing the appropriate and necessary support,” said a district response to Kobach’s press release last week.

“We trust our staff to put the best interests of families and students at the heart of every decision,” it continued.

In his press release, Kobach also noted that Olathe officials asked for a meeting with his office, “but despite repeated attempts by the Attorney General’s staff, no such meeting has been scheduled.”

The Olathe response clarified that, noting they were unable to make the originally scheduled Feb. 2, 2024 meeting, but had offered six additional dates and are available to meet at any of these times.

Kobach’s letter to the school board association asked if they were involved in promoting policies that “push parents out of the way on this issue.”

The association response provided to the Post said schools partner with parents to keep lines of communication open and provide a safe and caring space to learn.

“Kansas schools respect and value the rights of parents, which are well established,” the association wrote in its response. “Each school district depends on locally elected school board members to establish policies and provide accountability. These people are in the best position to make decisions for their local communities.”

This story was originally published by the Johnson County Post.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Roxie Hammill