BEMIDJI - Some Bemidji-area lawmakers object to a draft of the state's new "toolkit" for school districts to address K-12 students who are transgender or do not conform to the gender binary.
Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, and Sens. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, and Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, and 64 other Republican legislators wrote a letter to Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius that her department's resources would be better spent elsewhere-rather than "advancing a progressive social agenda"-and that many parents are opposed to their children being exposed to "confusing" ideas of gender identity and fluidity.
"If the Minnesota Department of Education's 'Toolkit' is approved and distributed to school districts, additional action will be considered to protect Minnesota children from this fraudulent and harmful agenda," the lawmakers wrote.
The toolkit is designed to offer suggestions that school districts can use for the safety and support of transgender students and others with marginalized gender identities. It makes repeated references to state law and, notably, federal guidelines for transgender issues that were issued in 2016 and have since been withdrawn under the Trump administration.
Suggestions in the 31-page toolkit include using an additional field in school record-keeping systems to indicate gender beyond "male" or "female"; installing gender neutral, single-stall, or private bathrooms; and allowing student athletes to play sports in a manner consistent with their gender identity.
"The toolkit does not serve as guidance, direction, statute or rule; it is intended to provide additional information for districts to consider as they make their own locally determined policies," Josh Collins, an education department spokesperson, wrote in response to questions about the toolkit. Collins noted that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said the issue is best addressed at the state and local level. "In the absence of new guidance by the U.S. Department of Education, this toolkit is the result of Minnesota's efforts to address these issues."
Collins added that he did not have an estimate on how much time or money the education department spent to put together the toolkit.
The toolkit itself cites research indicating that transgender students are more likely to report depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts or self-harm. It also points to a study that found 42 percent of gender binary nonconforming students reported being called names, 40 percent reported being frequently excluded, and 50 percent did not participate in school activities for fear of discrimination.
"I signed on to the toolkit letter because I believe our educational resources should be dedicated toward solving the worst education gap in the country and making sure all children in Minnesota are able to receive a world-class education no matter where they live, not to promote a controversial social agenda," said Grossell, who serves on the house's Education Innovation Policy Committee. "Just last month I had the opportunity to travel to the Angle Inlet school that badly needs funding and I'd much rather have our resources go to addressing their issues, not things like the toolkit."
Grossell said on his House of Representatives webpage that gender identity discussions should be left to parents and echoed the sentiments in the letter to Cassellius.
Eichorn and Utke could not be reached for comment Friday. They both serve on the Senate's E-12 policy committee, and Utke serves on its E-12 policy committee.
Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, did not sign the May 10 letter. He could not be reached for comment Friday.