Education

State superintendent refuses to discuss LGBT newsletter at public forum

January 8, 2020

Ray Carter

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister is refusing to meet in public with a state lawmaker and citizens concerned about an August Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) newsletter that focused on “best practices” to create a “safe and valued climate for LGBT students.”

Among other things, the newsletter recommended that Oklahoma schools allow students to select bathrooms based on gender identity rather than biological gender and informed school officials they should “never reveal” a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity without the student’s permission “even to the student’s family.”

Rep. Justin Humphrey, R-Lane, asked Hofmeister and department staff to attend a Jan. 14 meeting in the House chamber of the state Capitol. Humphrey said he requested that space to accommodate an anticipated high number of attendees. He said the meeting was intended to allow department officials to discuss why the material, which many perceived as a mandate, was included in an agency newsletter sent to school districts.

However, in a letter of response to Humphrey, Hofmeister wrote that the lawmaker’s “intent is clear” and accused Humphrey of misrepresenting the purpose of the agency newsletter and trying to “turn a private meeting into what amounts to a public circus based on the fabrication that the State Department of Education is promoting any ‘agenda’ beyond keeping children safe at school.”

Hofmeister said she would only meet with Humphrey and pastors from his community “at my office.”

One of those who hoped Hofmeister would agree to a public meeting was Bill Ledbetter, senior pastor at Fairview Baptist Church in Durant and president of the ministry “Lighthouse America,” which describes its mission as “engaging American culture with Biblical truth while endeavoring to preserve and reclaim America’s Christian and Constitutional Heritage.”

Ledbetter said he and other religious leaders have “concern and love” for LGBT individuals, but also oppose government entities imposing mandates that would “validate” what many Oklahomans consider immoral behavior based on their religious beliefs.

“You cannot begin to insert immoral precepts into our schools, our systems of government,” Ledbetter said.

In 2016, under the Obama administration, federal agencies notified schools they would be violating federal law if they did not allow students to use the bathroom or locker room of their choice based on gender identity, rather than biological sex.  Due to a lawsuit, a court subsequently issued a nationwide injunction on enforcement of that directive. By February 2017 the Trump administration rescinded the guidance document.

Currently, there are no federal or state mandates that require schools to have a specific bathroom policy for transgender students. Schools are allowed to determine those policies at the local level.

In her letter to Humphrey, Hofmeister described the agency newsletter, which was sent to Title IX administrators in Oklahoma schools, as a document that simply “provides information and various perspectives regarding the federal civil rights law.”

“We conceded that the newsletter should have made clear that the recommendations were proposed by a non-governmental entity and not the OSDE,” Hofmeister wrote (underscore in original). “The material in question was in no way a directive nor an endorsement, but I will add that the OSDE will never shirk its responsibility to help ensure every student can attend school feeling safe, secure and ready to learn.”

When asked about the source of the agency newsletter’s content, an OSDE spokesperson recently confirmed that the department’s LGBT material came from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), although attribution was not originally included. The SPLC has long been criticized for labeling religiously conservative organizations as “hate groups” comparable to the Ku Klux Klan.

The SPLC once described Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a well-regarded black surgeon, as an extremist. The SPLC later withdrew that designation, but still insisted Carson “has, in fact, made a number of statements that express views that we believe most people would conclude are extreme.”

Among Carson’s views cited as extreme by the SPLC was the statement, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” The SPLC also cited Carson’s observation that Judeo-Christian faith and strong families are “things have been systematically attacked over the last several decades” as an example of extremism, as well as Carson’s belief that because “people did not oppose a progressively overreaching government” when the Nazi Party controlled Germany that “the entire world suffered a great Holocaust.”  

In 2012, liberal columnist Dana Milbank criticized the SPLC for labeling the Family Research Council as a “hate group,” writing it was “reckless in labeling as a ‘hate group’ a policy shop that advocates for a full range of conservative Christian positions, on issues from stem cells to euthanasia.” Milbank, a supporter of LGBT causes, said it was “absurd” for the SPLC to lump the Family Research Council “in the same category as Aryan Nations, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Stormfront and the Westboro Baptist Church.”

A former employee of the SPLC has described the group as “a highly profitable scam.”

Given the group’s notoriety, Humphrey said Hofmeister and OSDE officials need to explain why the agency chose to distribute material from a controversial organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center. He said lawmakers and citizens deserve to know who authorized use of SPLC materials in state communications and whether any specific rules or procedures are in place to guide how and when communications from third-party special-interest groups are republished and distributed by the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

“How do you pick which group you’re going to promote?” Humphrey asked.

He also wants to know how many documented LGBT abuse cases have been reported in Oklahoma public schools in the last three calendar years.

A 2017 report by The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimated that 2,100 Oklahoma youth age 13 to 18 identify as transgender, representing just 0.83 percent of all Oklahoma youth in that age range. Oklahoma public schools have 703,650 students enrolled in pre-K through 12th grade for the 2019-20 school year, according to state figures.

While the department newsletter is a relatively rare instance in which Oklahoma government resources have been used to advocate for policies regarding transgender issues in schools, such stances have been embraced by the state’s major teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association.

In July, more than 60 OEA delegates participated in the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly. Among the new business items gaining approval from attendees was a resolution that committed the NEA and its state affiliates (such as the OEA) to “organize and mobilize in support of the Equality Act,” declaring it important to increase “awareness of the importance of passing non-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Under the provisions of the “Equality Act,” the National Center for Transgender Equality notes that “everyone must be able to use facilities consistent with their gender identity” at all entities covered by the proposed law.

Ledbetter said Oklahomans deserve to learn how state education officials are developing school policy and directing the use of taxpayer resources—and that those answers should be provided in public.

“The fact that Mrs. Hofmeister is not showing up, frankly, I’m disappointed,” Ledbetter said. “I think it’s time to be accountable to the people—all the people. This is an important thing.”

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