School policies draws ire of LGBTQ+ community, school board

Big Sky High school student Max Berndt, who uses they/them pronouns, faced a parent upset with them when they began questioning their sexuality and gender. It became an emotionally fraught time for Max and their mom Sarah.Max ended up joining the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), an LGBTQ+ school group that spans Missoula high schools and middle schools. Sarah said Max needed the club for the support and community it offered that she was unable to provide as an adult.“When kids are coming out, they aren’t ready to talk to the grownups about these things yet,” Sarah said. “They have to spitball things off their peers. That’s where these things start, and allowing them the space for community is essential for that.”

Max Berndt, left, president of the Gay-Straight Alliance student club at Big Sky High School, hugs their mom Sara, a former educator, after the pair gave public comment at a Missoula County Public Schools special work session, Thursday, Aug. 17, to consider changes to the student handbook that would require parental consent for students to participate in clubs at their school. MCPS tabled changes to the student handbook regarding parental consent on Thursday evening.

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New policies that will be enacted this academic year to comply with state laws could limit students from joining such groups. This prompted Max and Sarah to speak against a slate of proposed policy changes at the Missoula County Public Schools Board of Trustees’ meeting Thursday evening.“A lot of our GSAs, or other programs, are attended by students who need it the most,” said Max, president of Big Sky High’s GSA chapter. “They are kids whose parents would object to being in those groups. They are kids who want to discover a community and a life outside of the one that they were taught.”Max and Sarah were joined by several other community members upset with a new set of policies passed by the Montana Legislature requiring parental permission to join extracurriculars and restricting the honoring of preferred pronouns. They will be implemented this year in MCPS and across Montana.At Thursday’s meeting, the trustees expressed discontent with the policy changes. They considered options for addressing the new policies that the district will implement with some trustees saying the policies create a less-safe school environment. The school district is obligated to enforce the policy changes to follow state law. Sponsors said laws like Senate Bill 518 and House Bill 676 passed this session focused on expanding parental rights. Legal counsel and trustees disagreed with that perspective.“All these are geared towards the transgender community,” MCPS legal counsel Elizabeth Kaleva told trustees in the meeting. “We know that they can’t say it out loud, though, because it’s illegal to say it out loud. And they’re couching it in the form of parental rights by saying that parents should have the right to essentially control and make decisions for their children below the age of 18.”The trustees tabled a decision on the language that will ultimately be added in student handbooks this fall.

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Elizabeth Kaleva, legal counsel for Missoula County Public Schools, gives legal statements Thursday evening at a MCPS work session regarding possible changes and effects on students if the student handbook is modified.

Trustee Grace Decker said in a Facebook post after the meeting Thursday that the policy changes brought about by the new bills clearly “aim to curtail youth rights to gender expression,” and “force schools to create less-safe learning environments for LGBTQ+ students.” The board typically doesn’t make any decision when it comes to the approval or rejection of handbooks, with the decisions instead being implemented by school administrators. Trustees instead used it as an informational meeting to better understand their options for potentially challenging the new policies.Trustee Meg Whicher said it isn’t the intention to alienate parents with the trustees’ frustration on the new policies. “What we’re trying is to protect students who need protection by diving into all of this,” Whicher said. “I think at the end of the day, speaking for myself and speaking for some colleagues, it’s that safety and those kids who need us the most. I think that has got us where we are right now and making sure that we’re taking care of the kids of our district.”Kaleva said there could be legal standing to challenge the bills, following recent rulings at a national level protecting LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination. Additionally, parts of the bills are contradictory, according to Kaleva. They leave the school district in an “odd spot” in how to enforce the policies. SB 518 declares that a parent should provide written consent if a student wishes to go by preferred pronouns that do not align with the student’s sex. At the same time, the bill states that “a person may not be compelled to use pronouns that do not align with the child’s sex,” ignoring the parental rights that are meant to be supported by the bill, according to Board of Trustees Chair Wilena Old Person. The state of Montana also made changes earlier this year to harassment and human rights language saying it is not discrimination to refuse to call someone by their preferred pronouns. In spite of perceived contradictions in law and trustees disagreeing with the new policies, the school district will still have to implement and enforce them in some form. Otherwise, if the trustees gave direction for teachers to ignore the policies, teachers would risk being delicensed and trustees would fail to follow the law they’ve sworn to as elected officials. 

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Micah Hill, new superintendent for Missoula County Public Schools, listens to remarks from MCPS trustees regarding possible changes to the student handbook at a special work session on Thursday evening. The School Board ended up tabling changes to the handbook. The handbook change is required due to recent legislation passed in 2023 regarding parental rights to pull their kids out of student clubs.

“There are contradictions throughout the way this was adopted and implemented, and it is wreaking havoc throughout Montana,” Kaleva said. “It’s not just Missoula struggling with this. It’s all schools that are really saying, ‘How do we do this,’ and at the same time, recognize that we’re potentially disenfranchising portions of our population, which flies in the face of everything we say we’re going to do.” Decker said trustees will be watching how the policy implementation plays out closely over the next couple of months. Kaleva anticipated a lawsuit related to the policies. “If we follow it, or we don’t follow it, we’re probably gonna get sued either way,” Kaleva said. “It’s a question of whether we’re a friendly defendant or a not-so-friendly defendant.”In a letter addressed to the trustees Tuesday, Executive Director of the Western Montana LGBTQ+ Community Center Andy Nelson said that the policy changes specifically target GSA and Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) groups. “This change is none other than a political ploy and culture-war wedge issue that is ultimately harmful to some of the most marginalized kids in our school system,” Nelson stated. “Why? Because GSA and QSA groups have existed in public schools for decades and it wasn’t until this right wing/parental rights wave that it became a problem.” The first GSA groups are estimated to have started in the 1980s. Nelson stated that while he didn’t have the opportunity to be part of a GSA growing up in rural northeastern Montana, he could have benefited greatly from such a group. Luckily, his parents were supportive of him coming out, even though he would be afraid of telling his parents he joined such a group.“There are so many kids that don’t have the same privileges of having a supportive family as I do,” Nelson stated. “Allowing a young, middle, or high school aged person to attend a GSA or QSA is important because of those reasons. It is imperative that a young LGBTQIA+ or Two Spirit person has a strong support system, because in reality, many don’t have one in their own family.” 

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