What does transgender sports law require of schools? (Photo by Monroe Bush for the Indiana Capital Chronicle)
What does transgender sports law require of schools? (Photo by Monroe Bush for the Indiana Capital Chronicle)

After Indiana’s law banning transgender girls from competing in girls school sports took effect in July, at least one Hoosier school district is grappling with what the new statute does — and does not — require of schools.

The controversy centers around a proposed plan to codify the state ban in district policy — a move the Indiana School Boards Association and American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana (ACLU) say is unnecessary.

Indiana lawmakers passed the bill, which specifically blocks transgender girls from playing on K-12 girl’s school sports teams. It doesn’t impact transgender boys or college and professional sports.

Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed the bill, saying there is no current problem in Indiana and noting the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) already has a policy in place to ensure fair competition. Legislators then returned in May to override the veto. 

The ban has since been put on-hold for Indianapolis Public Schools after a federal judge in July issued a preliminary injunction in favor of a transgender girl who would be blocked from playing girls’ sports under the state’s new ban.

ACLU sued the school district on behalf of the 10-year-old student who said she would no longer be able to play softball on her school’s all-girls’ softball team.

Attorney General Todd Rokita has emphasized that the law remains in effect across the state and maintains his office will continue to defend the law “to protect Indiana’s students.”

School district floats its own ban

Indiana schools were required to align their policies with the new legislation by July 1.

But West Lafayette Community School Corporation officials drew criticism last month after the district proposed its own outright ban on certain transgender student-athletes.

The draft policy seeks to prohibit transgender girls from competing on girls school sports teams in the district. It would also lay out a specific grievance procedure for students who feel unfairly barred from a sports team.

West Lafayette school board members said their interpretation of the state law requires them to adopt a specific transgender athlete ban at the district level, too — even if they disagree with the policy.

One board member, Amy Austin, said she morally disapproved of the policy, but echoed other district officials’ concerns that they must adhere to the state statute.

“We have to obviously follow the law, we’re a state agency, right?” Austin said at the November school board meeting. “But, I didn’t feel comfortable letting that go by without mentioning that I will grudgingly do what it takes to follow the law … because people’s very personal lives should not be subject to the government’s interference.”

School board President Rachel Witt added that the Indiana attorney general has made “clear” the need for schools to specifically enforce the statewide ban at the district level.

The ACLU of Indiana said in a statement that the school district’s policy is unnecessary and “sends the wrong message,” however. Instead, West Lafayette schools can better serve students by “making it clear that they disagree” with the state’s attempt to ban trans girls from sports, “not enshrining the ban into school policy.”

 ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk (From the ACLU of Indiana Website)

 

ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk additionally told the Indiana Capital Chronicle that the law is not enforced by the state, but rather by “people who are concerned that transgender females are playing sports.”

The law makes clear that schools must have in place a grievance procedure for students who feel they’ve been “deprived of an athletic opportunity.” The law does not make clear what those policies should specifically consist of, but Falk said a grievance policy could simply require an email to an athletic director.

If a student or parent is not satisfied with the outcome of that grievance process, they can then file a lawsuit against the school corporation arguing that the law is being violated.

“At this point, given that this ban is state law, it’s unclear why the school should have rules at all,” Falk said. “This is all made up — this is a problem that doesn’t exist.”

West Lafayette superintendent Shawn Greiner asked school board members to table the policy now. Witt said the district is waiting for legal battles to play out in court before moving forward.

What is — and isn’t — required of schools

Indiana joins more than a dozen other states adopting similar laws in the past two years.

Earlier, when the ban was under debate in the legislature, IHSAA Commissioner Paul Neidig expressed reservations that the legislation only addressed “a single gender and the grievance procedure.” 

He added that the IHSAA’s long-standing gender policy already provides “the flexibility to assess competitive advantage in each unique case.” The policy requires transgender girls who want to play sports to show they’ve completed hormone therapy, and that their muscle mass or bone density is typical of other girls the same age.

Even so, the association has not had any transgender girls finalize a request to play on a girls team.

“We have not received any inquiries for legal guidance from our member schools but if we do receive questions, we would refer them to the IHSAA Gender Policy,” Neidig said in a statement to the Indiana Capital Chronicle Friday.

Lisa Tanselle, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association, said the statewide organization has not fielded questions or concerns about transgender athletes policies from individual school districts.

“I have yet to entertain a phone call from a school board on this particular issue. Although that’s not to say that doesn’t mean school boards haven’t done this,” she said. “The statute doesn’t really refer to the board adopting a policy. If a school corporation has a grievance procedure in place, that’s good enough — that would suffice.”

Multiple Indiana school districts, including the Fort Wayne and Evansville community school districts, did not reply to the Indiana Capital Chronicle’s requests for comment about their athlete policies and grievance procedures.

Still, Title IV already requires school corporations to have a grievance procedure in place for complaints alleging sex discrimination. Tanselle noted that policies relevant to those federal guidelines could be enough to fulfill the Indiana requirement.

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