Kansas’ AG is telling schools they must out trans kids to parents

Kansas’ attorney general is telling public schools they’re required to tell parents their children are transgender or non-binary 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 non-binary at school violates a 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 non-binary students.

LGBTQ+ rights advocates saw the letters as seeking policies that put transgender and non-binary 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 non-binary. 

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 non-binary, 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 non-binary 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. They’re an integral part, if not the most important part, in helping their child grow and develop with the values that the parent wants,” she said. 

But Kobach didn’t cite Kansas law in his letters to the state school boards association, the Topeka school district and the Kansas City, Shawnee Mission and Olathe school 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 to control how their children are raised. His office released copies Thursday.

He told each of the four 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.

“It would be arrogant beyond belief to hide something with such weighty consequences from the very people (parents) that both law and nature vest with providing for a child’s long-term well-being,” Kobach wrote in each of the letters.

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.

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.

As for Kobach, Tom Alonzo, a Kansas City, Kansas, LGBTQ+ rights advocate, argued that the Kansas attorney general is bent on “intentional marginalization” of transgender people.

“There’s no excuse for it,” he said as he staffed a table Thursday in the Statehouse. “I was a gay kid hiding in high school. I remember how ugly high school can be if you’re out.” 

While the Kansas City, Kansas, district declined comment, the other three districts said they deal with transgender and non-binary 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 her district’s response in December. She said “it is rarely the case” that students seek something “entirely opposed” by their parents.

She also 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.” She called his use of woke “as an insult” disappointing in an attorney general.

“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.