The Arkansas House Education Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would restrict transgender people from using the restroom of their choice at school.
House Bill 1156 would require public schools and open enrollment public charter schools to bar people from using a restroom that does not correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate. The bill applies to places at schools where people "may be in various stages of undress" around others, which includes multiple-occupancy restrooms, locker rooms, changing rooms and shower rooms.
Rep. Mary Bentley, the bill's sponsor, said it is aimed at protecting students who may feel uncomfortable sharing a restroom with a transgender student and to shield school districts that restrict restroom use from lawsuits.
"I think it's a great bill that's going to help all of our students feel not only safe, but feel comfortable to be able to use the bathroom they need to when they go to school," said Bentley, a Republican from Perryville. "I think it's a great bill for our small school districts not to be inundated with unnecessary lawsuits to allow them to focus on the child's education."
Bentley said she was prompted to introduce the bill after being approached by two members of the Conway School Board, which passed a similar measure in October, with pushback from many in the community. Last week, the House Education Committee held a hearing on the bill but did not take a vote, as staff was still preparing a required fiscal impact statement.
Conway School Board members Linda Hargis and Dr. David Naylor spoke in favor of the bill during Thursday's meeting, saying they passed a similar policy in Conway to make sure female students felt comfortable in the restroom bathroom.
"Our kids have the right to feel comfortable and safe in their space," Hargis said at last week's meeting. "And without this bill and the policy, we are creating a perfect storm."
The majority of those who testified last week, including parents of transgender students, transgender adults and activists, urged lawmakers to vote down the bill, saying it was singling out the most vulnerable students. Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, said it is often cisgender students, not trans students, who are responsible for fights, assaults and other incidents inside school restrooms.
"This is representative of a problem that doesn't exist," Garner said. "If there are problems in bathrooms, it's not due to transgender youth. It's particularly discriminatory toward transgender youth."
Clayton Crockett, the father of a trans student, said the bill makes transgender people feel attacked by lawmakers.
"I can tell you that she feels targeted, she feels discriminated against, she feels bullied, she feels singled out," Crockett said at Thursday's meeting. "She does not want to go to school. She is depressed."
The bill requires schools to provide "a reasonable accommodation" for those unwilling to use a multi-occupancy restroom. The bill also requires schools that sponsor overnight trips to have students "share sleeping quarters with a member of the same sex," unless they are immediate family members.
The bill also bars school districts from adopting a different restroom policy, and superintendents, administrators, principals, teachers and classroom supervisors could be subject to a minimum fine of $1,000 and possible further punishment from the Professional Licensure Standards Board.
The bill now goes to the full House for a vote.