South Dakota GOP senators reject trans student bathroom ban

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Republicans on a South Dakota Senate committee Tuesday rejected a bill that would have banned transgender students from using school restrooms that match their gender identity.

All but one senator on the seven-member Senate Judiciary committee, comprised of all Republicans, voted to reject the bill, arguing that determining trans students’ bathroom access was a policy best left to local school boards.

“I ran for the South Dakota Senate not a school board,” said Republican Sen. Michael Rohl, arguing against the Legislature’s stepping into the issue.

The hearing was a continuation of a school board debate in Vermillion after the district in November established a policy that allows students to use restrooms that correspond with their “consistently asserted gender.”

For parents of trans students, such as Mike Phelan, the Vermillion policy was a relief. He told the Senate committee that it allowed his daughter to fit in among her peers rather than face awkward situations each time she needed to use the bathroom. She had avoided eating and drinking water to avoid having to use school bathrooms.

“She eats and drinks normally and she is happy when I pick her up,” he said of the new policy. “In her own words: ‘This made me feel like I really belong in school.’”

But the bill’s proponents argued that the new policy would endanger students, creating an excuse for sexual predators to enter school bathrooms.

That argument was dismissed as fearmongering.

“This policy has nothing to do with sexual abuse or giving access to predators,” said Shane Nordyke, a member of the Vermillion school board, adding that those who make such arguments “are either misinformed or disingenuous.”

Transgender youth and their access to school sports, bathrooms or gender-affirming treatments has become a perennial topic in the Legislature as some Republican lawmakers try to push that their gender identity be rejected in favor of the biological sex on their birth certificate. Gov. Kristi Noem last week signed a bill to bar trans girls and college-age women from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity.

“Biology matters,” said Republican Rep. Fred Deutsch, who sponsored the bill. “Boys are boys, and girls are girls and it’s impossible to change, physiologically impossible.”

The committee’s rejection was a major setback for the bathroom proposal, but it could still be revived with support from one-third of the Senate.

Republican Sen. Marsha Symens, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said she would assess what kind of support the bill may have left.

Stephen Groves
Stephen Groves
Stephen covers Congress in Washington.