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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

West Bonner School District policy identifies students by biological sex, bans trans athletes from women’s sports

West Bonner County Schools Board Chair Keith Rutledge, left, speaks to other members during a meeting of the West Bonner County School District board Wednesday, July 26, 2023 at the meeting at Priest River High School in Priest River, Idaho.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Staff of the West Bonner County School District cannot call students by their chosen gender pronouns under a new policy approved by the school board last week.

The policy comes at a tumultuous time for the rural North Idaho school district facing major budget shortfalls under a controversial new superintendent with far-right ties and as a recall against two board members looms next week.

The board’s policy segregates restrooms, locker rooms and sports participation according to biological sex rather than gender. These measures are essential to providing equal opportunities, privacy and “a safe learning environment for all students,” according to the policy.

“Employees and all representatives of the district shall refer to a student by their biological sex unless otherwise expressly agreed to in writing by district administration and the student’s parent or legal guardian,” the policy says.

Superintendent Branden Durst said he is not aware of any transgender students in the district.

If a student is unwilling or unable to use a restroom or changing facility designated for their sex, parents may request an accommodation by speaking with their school’s administrator, who would then discuss with the superintendent what the appropriate arrangement might be, such as using a staff restroom, Durst said.

The policy moreover prohibits biological males and transgender girls from participating in girls’ sports, while biological females may continue to participate in boys’ sports with parent and administration permission.

A district news release focused entirely on how, it says, this will level the playing field for women’s sports.

“It ensures that girls have an equal opportunity to compete and excel in sports without facing inherent physiological differences that could impact the fairness of the competitions,” the release said.

The release championed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, signed into law by Gov. Brad Little in 2020, which says only biologically female students can participate in female athletics at public schools.

A U.S. appeals court blocked the state’s ban on Thursday, the same day as West Bonner’s news release. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a transgender athlete at Boise State University.

The West Bonner school board approved its policy on biological sex 4-0 on Aug. 16.

Trustee Margaret Hall abstained from voting since she said the policy was not detailed enough as written. She said it combines two separate policy sections under one umbrella, when they would be clearer if separated.

Hall referred to two draft templates provided to school districts as part of the Idaho School Board Association’s 2023 Spring Policy Update, which separated policies on gender identity and sexual orientation from another section on facilities separated by sex. School districts are allowed to use those drafts to model their own policies.

The state’s suggested gender identity policy would allow a student or parent to discuss with their principal changes in their gender identity or expression.

Hall said she is also concerned the policy was not vetted by an attorney.

Durst is a former Idaho Freedom Foundation staffer whose hiring by the school district was controversial among some board members and community members. Among his controversial views are advocating that public and private schools be allowed to compete for taxpayer funding.

He said the policy was reviewed not by the board’s legal counsel, but by attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom.

Based in Scottsdale, Arizona, Alliance Defending Freedom is a conservative Christian legal advocacy group that promotes anti-LGBTQ policies and that supported the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act and similar laws in other states.

The district’s news release said its new policy defends against government overreach at the local level.

“By asserting its autonomy,” the release said, “the West Bonner County School District takes a stand against any form of federal tyranny that could infringe upon its ability to make decisions that are in the best interest of its students.”

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.