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Utah Teachers Directed Not To Ask Students' Pronouns

Utah State Board of Education

Last week, the Utah State Board of Education directed all public and charter schoolteachers that it is against policy to ask students their preferred gender identity.

As KPCW reports, that guidance conflicts with the current teacher training encouraging inclusivity and acceptance in schools. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson alerted district administrators that asking gender identity questions does not comply with federal and state statutes.

In the directive, she said educators must defer to the state statute that protects the rights of parents or guardians. Her statement said she applauds and supports the efforts of teachers to get to know their students and build relationships as an essential companion to learning.  However, she states, "we see some questions pop up, particularly in the high school setting, that cross the lines of what aligns with the law."

Since 2014, Park City High School Teacher Mary Sue Purzycki has advised the Gay-Straight Alliance Club. She said trans children are most at risk for self-harm and that understanding gender identity is critical to making school a safe place for everyone.

"My perspective, as the GSA advisor, this is like one of the safest things. The easiest way to make one of our highest at-risk populations for suicide comfortable in the classroom is to respect their pronouns and their given name. So, I understand the law that unless the parents are on board with changing their given name to their chosen name, they usually call their dead name--their given name--that has to be with parent approval.”

Purzycki said inclusivity in school means knowing how a student identifies. She said students sometimes want to be called a different name other than their given name. For kids who are transitioning, parents can request a name and gender change in power school, the district’s online records and communication system.

“And until the child does the formal legal name change on the birth certificate--legal gender change, which is now a lot easier and a lot cheaper than it used to be, their legal reporting name would still be their dead name. So, the state will report everything under their dead name, but we all would see them only as their new name and their new gender identity.”

Purzycki said gender education is relatively new, and some students may be confused if asked how they identify. She said it could be awkward if parents don't know their child identifies differently from their birth gender or given name.

"It makes it hard when we have kids who are non-binary, who prefer to go by they/them/theirs because you don't have a way of finding out. But a kid can voluntarily tell you they/them/theirs when we have a GSA meeting because they're in that space of assuming that it's going to be okay. That's part of who we are.”

Park City School District Superintendent Jill Gildea said the state board of education guides educators to ensure that the school district complies with the law.  She declined to say what the consequences would be for school staff who don’t follow state guidelines.

Purzycki said it's one vocal group driving the directive, and she hopes the state board of education considers all sides of the issue.

"There is a family group. And I don't know their specific name, but they're very vocal at the state level that are saying that we're asking for too much personal information from our students and that it's not our responsibility to get that information from our students, that our responsibility is to teach our students the curriculum.”

Purzycki said the new restrictive guidelines contradict the teacher training they receive from the state.

"To create a safe learning environment, to create a class culture, and then to be inclusive. Well, all of this goes against all of those ideals."

Gildea said the state guidelines allow the use of preferred pronouns within the school environment with parental permissions. She said "getting to know you" surveys can't include questions about preferred pronouns.

The State Standards and Assessment Committee meets on September 3 and will address teacher guidance for understanding gender identity.
You can find a link to the state statutehere.

KPCW reporter Carolyn Murray covers Summit and Wasatch County School Districts. She also reports on wildlife and environmental stories, along with breaking news. Carolyn has been in town since the mid ‘80s and raised two daughters in Park City.
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