In the early hours of Tuesday morning, after a “marathon” school board session featuring four hours of debate from parents, students and community members, the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in North Texas narrowly passed a sweeping set of policies that includes a total ban on all classroom discussion of “gender fluidity.”
The new rules also impose more limits on how race, gender and sexuality are taught; restrict which bathrooms transgender youths can use; and give greater power to the school board to determine which books are available in school libraries.
Last year, state lawmakers passed a law limiting how race, slavery and history are taught in public schools. The district made national headlines then, too, after a Black principal was put on leave after being accused of teaching critical race theory.
A Black principal was accused of embracing critical race theory in the classroom. He’s now out of a job.
The new rules — which passed in a 4-3 vote — are indicative of how school boards have become the “epicenter” of efforts to push anti-inclusive policies, LGBTQ and civil rights advocates say. GCISD is among a “cluster” of districts moving to further restrict education in this way, according to Kate Huddleston, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
The policies also go “far beyond” Texas law, Huddleston said: “As far as I know, this is the most extreme policy, particularly in terms of classroom censorship … of any district in Texas.”
On Monday, GCISD board President Casey Ford said that the policies “are a reflection of Texas law and community values,” according to the Dallas Morning News. Ford said the changes came from “input from several groups,” including the board — which added two new conservative members in May — district lawyers, school administrators, community members and lawmakers, the outlet reported.
The proposals were made available to the public only 72 hours before being voted on, according to the Texas Observer.
Rachel Hill, government affairs director for Equality Texas, an LGBTQ advocacy organization, called the new policies “a grab-bag of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and censorship policies.”
“They took a lot of the policies that were floating out there in the national district and combined them all in one place,” Hill said. “Not only are these policies harmful individually, but kids are facing the full brunt of all of them together.”
The recent school board changes signal how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation, which have spiked across the country in the last couple of years, are winding their way into various communities, “impacting people’s everyday lives,” Hill added. “It’s important to remember that this could happen anywhere, even if you feel like your state policies are more affirming of LGBTQ people.”
Since 2021, conservative lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills restricting the rights of LGBTQ people, with much of their attention focused on trans youths. Of this surge in legislation, only a fraction have been enacted into law. But those that have succeeded have seized national attention — alarming LGBTQ communities and advocates and spurring copycat proposals in other places.
One of the most notable examples is Florida’s Parental Rights in Education policy, referred to by its critics as the “don’t say gay” law. The bill, enacted this summer, bans “instruction” of gender and sexual identity until the third grade, and adds further restrictions through grade 12 for material that is not “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Parents are able to sue schools if they believe the schools have violated these guidelines. (Last month, Florida’s largest school district, Miami-Dade County, narrowly rejected a previously approved sex-education textbook for middle and high schools on the grounds that it violated the law.)
GCISD’s new policies echo the Florida law, barring discussion of gender and sexual identity until the sixth grade and enacting a total ban on talking about “gender fluidity” — which the district defines in part as any theory that “espouses the view that an individual’s biological sex should be changed to ‘match’ a self-believed gender that is different from the person’s biological sex.”
Critics of this policy have referred to it as the “don’t say trans” rule.
The policies also state that multiple-occupancy bathrooms or changing facilities “shall be designated for and used only by persons based on the person’s biological sex,” though it does allow schools to provide “reasonable accommodations upon request,” the Dallas Morning News reported.
In addition, the school board gave itself a larger role in selecting books and barred “equity audits” — which collect data on schools’ cultural, socioeconomic and racial dynamics.
Teachers are also no longer required to use the pronouns used by trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming children, even if a parent or guardians have asked them to do so.
Hill, of Equality Texas, called this part of the new rules particularly hypocritical: “This isn’t about respecting all students or respecting all parents and families. It’s about one particular parent voice. … It’s about anti-LGBTQ policies.”
A passionate debate preceded the vote and featured almost 200 speakers, each of whom had been given a time limit of 60 seconds, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“We have seen the overt, nefarious infiltration of social and cultural propaganda in the curriculum, none more damaging to young minds and bodies than the madness of so-called gender fluidity ideology,” said GCISD board member Tammy Nakamura, in a video shared by a local NBC News station.
Julie McCarty, chief executive of the True Texas Project, a right-wing advocacy group that has touted extremist messaging, said the policy gave parents a voice in their children’s education, and that parents in other districts in the state were taking note of the board’s actions, per the Star-Telegram.
Opponents of the new policies told the trustees the policies would erase LGBTQ people — and may even endanger students’ lives.
“You can talk about Santa Claus, but you can’t talk about gay people to fifth-graders,” said Mike Sexton, whose children go to GCISD schools, according to the Texas Tribune. “This is incredible — you’re acting like people don’t exist.”
“Are you ready to be responsible for even one child taking their life?” a former GCISD high school student asked. “With these new policies you will alienate them even more from getting help, so they feel that suicide is their only escape.”
The student, who identifies as LGBTQ, transferred to another district this year because of “the culture of fear” school officials have created, the Texas Observer reported.
A recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly half of gay, lesbian and bisexual teens said they contemplated suicide during the pandemic, compared with 14 percent of their straight, cisgender peers. Research suggests that number is even higher for young trans people.
Huddleston, the ACLU of Texas attorney, said the new policies violate students’ First Amendment rights, as well as federal anti-discrimination laws.
“All options are on the table” when it comes to challenging the policies, said Huddleston: “We are extremely concerned and evaluating the policy as passed.”
The high-profile battle over the new policies highlights how much political energy — and money — have shifted toward small, hyperlocal venues like school boards.
GCISD is a relatively small district — covering 21 schools and around 14,000 students, half of whom are racial minorities. Still, its recent school board election, which resulted in two new conservative board members, attracted a spike in political donations, according to NBC News.
Among the donors was the Patriot Mobile, which bills itself as “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider.” (According to multiple reports, Patriot Mobile was a prominent presence at this week’s board meeting and had set up tents for the overflow of attendees.)
“This is all political,” said Jorge Rodríguez, a trustee who voted against the policies. “These board meetings have just become headquarters for political campaigns instead of focusing on what we are here to do, which is to help students succeed.”