By Dana Hess
For S.D. Newspaper Association
PIERRE, S.D. — The South Dakota High School Activities Association’s transgender policy is going through more changes than Bruce Jenner.
At its June meeting, the association board of directors considered a revised policy designed to address concerns expressed during the last legislative session.
“We really kind of focused on what we heard from the Legislature,” said SDHSAA Executive Director Wayne Carney.
During the legislative session the association’s policy governing the eligibility of transgender students to take part in high school sports and activities was targeted by conservative lawmakers. Attempts to pass state laws superseding the association policy were unsuccessful.
The current policy allows students who self-identify as belonging to the opposite sex to compete with that sex if certain criteria are met.
SDHSAA legal counsel Lindsey Riter-Rapp said lawmakers questioned the credentials of the Gender Identification Eligibility Committee that would be used in the current policy. The committee is to include a physician familiar with gender identity health care, a mental health professional and an advocate familiar with gender identity issues and expression issues.
Some lawmakers believed “there may be some bias in their perspective,” Riter-Rapp said
In the revised policy, the eligibility committee has been replaced by an independent hearing officer. Carney said a former judge has agreed to serve in that capacity.
The revised policy states that once a school has forwarded the proper documentation about a transgender student’s request to compete, the hearing officer would review that information as well as communicate with experts, review laws, communicate with the Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights and review other information.
The hearing officer’s decision would be passed on to the SDHSAA board of directors, which would make the final decision. Board members asked that the policy be changed to follow current eligibility proceedings with a decision by the executive director and the board hearing any appeal.
This was not the first choice of Carney who clearly didn’t want to have the final say on transgender matters
“This is very unique,” Carney said, “This is way out of my realm.”
During the discussion, board members also asked Riter-Rapp to include a more thorough explanation of the hearing officer’s qualifications.
Board member Sandy Klatt questioned the perception of bias on the part of the association if it was picking the hearing officer.
Carney said the SDHSAA staff hear comments about bias all the time, particularly in dealing with the selection of officials for state tournaments.
“We hear the bias card a lot,” Carney said. “Somebody has to name that person. It has to start somewhere.”
The activities association isn’t the only education group struggling with transgender issues. Wade Pogany, executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, told the board that his group will likely issue a position paper about how to work with schools on this issue.
“The issue comes down to privacy issues” like setting policies for the use of restrooms and locker rooms, Pogany said.
The SDHSAA policy addresses student eligibility and Pogany agreed that it would be best to let each individual school work on its own privacy issues.
“Let the schools decide how they’re going to make those accommodations,” Pogany said.
Throughout the discussion, SDHSAA board members expressed their frustration with the transgender policy
Board member Dan Whalen said he understood the need to have a policy since case law is trending toward giving transgender students a protected status.
“This legal ship has sailed,” Whalen said. “I just hope the name of the ship is not Titanic.”
Whalen said he was concerned about safety issues if a male student who identifies as a female were to compete against female students.
“It becomes a physical issue there,” Whalen said, noting that in football practice coaches are already advised not to line a 140-pound freshman up against a 225-pound senior. He said it would be dangerous for a 150-pound female to play against a 150-pound male.
The revised policy does mention that transgender students would not be allowed to compete if their participation would provide them with a competitive advantage.
Riter-Rapp said safety issues were discussed in the writing of the revised policy.
“It was very hard to come up with language that addressed that,” Riter-Rapp said. “It’s just hard to define.”
At one point, Klatt suggested scrapping the current policy and taking a look at the revised policy at the next meeting.
Noting the heat that the board has taken from the Legislature, Klatt said, “I think we need to get rid of what we have.”
Board member Todd Trask agreed: “I think we need to start over and get it right.”
Aberdeen Central Athletic Director Gene Brownell cautioned against getting rid of the current policy, saying that he knows there are transgender students enrolled in his school district and he needs a policy in place if any of them want to participate in sports.
“We may have to apply this policy in August,” Brownell said, “if they’re coming out for a sport in the fall.”
The current policy will remain in place and Riter-Rapp was directed to continue with her revisions of the new policy and present them at the board’s August meeting.