Ron Soherville, a Juneau resident, testifies in favor of a bill restricting sex and gender content in public schools during a House Education Committee meeting Thursday night. He was surrounded by a crowd of mostly students who testified against the bill. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Ron Soherville, a Juneau resident, testifies in favor of a bill restricting sex and gender content in public schools during a House Education Committee meeting Thursday night. He was surrounded by a crowd of mostly students who testified against the bill. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

‘Parental rights’ sequel: Six hours of separation

About 180 more people testify mostly in opposition to bill, but legislators’ minds appear unchanged

Typical of a sequel it was more of everything, but not necessarily anything new or better during six hours of public testimony about a so-called “parental rights” bill Thursday night at the Alaska State Capitol.

It also appears the hundreds of residents who’ve expressed some drastic opinions about the bill’s possible impacts — to LGBTQ+ students in particular — have done little to change the minds of lawmakers or the ultimate fate of a proposal that seemingly lacks the votes to pass the Legislature.

About 180 people offered opinions about House Bill 105 during the House Education Committee meeting Thursday, with the 20% favoring the bill twice as high as the two weeks ago. There was also roughly 1,000 pages of written testimony submitted by residents as of Thursday which, while also mostly by people expressing opposition, has a higher ratio of supporters than the spoken testimony. A large percentage of written testimony by both sides are form messages with identical or slightly altered wording.

But the first wave of overwhelming opposition was dismissed by state Rep. Jamie Allard, who as co-chair of the committee presided over both public testimony meetings, as she began the second meeting Thursday. The Eagle River Republican, who had made an open to bill supporters beforehand to sign up to comment, began the marathon session by declaring “before we begin tonight I would like to clarify what HB 105 does.”

“First off I’d like to say that the public testimony on HB 105 has either been intentionally misleading or ill-informed about what this bill does,” she said.

The bill proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy requires students to use bathrooms and locker rooms matching their biological sex, ban sex and gender references in classes/activities before fourth grade and requires written parental permission for such content after, requires parental permission for a student to be addressed by a different name or gender, and requires instructors to notify parents of any change in a student’s physical/mental health (which can be interpreted to include LGBTQ+ admissions) unless there is a risk of abuse.

“All four of those policies seem common sense to me as a parent and to thousands of Alaskans I’ve heard from,” Allard said.

Testimony got off to a different start than the rampant opposition of two weeks ago as R0n Soherville, 85, a Juneau resident and lifelong Alaskan, offered the first in-person support of the bill heard by the committee. Surrounded by an audience mostly of students who would subsequently express opposition, he said he has nothing against people being gay since “Juneau has a lot of people who choose to take that lifestyle and that’s fine with me…(but) education is a different issue,” he said.

Soherville said public schools seem to be “alienating parents” with current policies, and as a result he favors an accredited charter system where parents could take a child’s state allocation and use it for such a school.

“I have two daughters and I can say I would honestly not approve of a biologically gay male in the locker room or bathroom,” he said. “If my daughters were present, in fact, I would take my daughters out of the school and put them somewhere else.”

During the hours that followed many of the common arguments about the bill were repeated, such as opponents saying LGBTQ+ suicides will increase due to abuse after being “outed” and supporters arguing such suicides are the result of “gender confused” youths not getting proper attention from unaware parents. God and Hitler were mentioned indirectly and by name. And while bill supporters talked about hypothetical bathroom access concerns, opponents said the only actual concern they’re hearing is students vaping in restrooms.

Some people testifying online spoke of attempting to dial in dozens of times before getting through, and when they did waiting two to three hours to speak. At times most of the seven committee members were absent from the room — although at least some were at two other meetings happening during the initial hours — but by late in the evening six of the members (with Rep. Tom McKay of Anchorage the exception) were back in their chairs.

There was also plenty of discussion about the validity of testimony already offered — and why more is being sought.

Rebecca Hinsberger, a Kasilof resident, said she supports the bill and “I believe I represent the majority of parents.” Speaking soon after was Stephen Edwards, a Wasilla resident who said he had no education or LGBTQ+ affiliation, but questioned why lawmakers weren’t focusing on other matters given the lopsided testimony during the first meeting.

“I’m kind of dismayed that we’re wasting legislative time having another one of these hearings,” he said. “We’ve already spoke to this issue. We want you to work on (education funding) or something that matters.”

The final person to testify at 11:23 p.m. was Jason Robinson, an Anchorage resident who said he supported the bill because “it seems to me this bill increases the rights of active, responsible parents and who would want to limit that?”

“I want to support teachers, not limit them by putting them in a silo where it’s them against me,” he said.

All of the committee members, despite obvious signs of fatigue, offered closing comments suggesting that while their opinions of the bill hadn’t changed some lessons were learned.

“I feel like I’m hearing from a lot of parents who don’t know what’s going on in the schools and that’s not OK,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent. “I don’t know that we necessarily need a law to change that, but we need to make sure that families feel welcome in our schools. I also think it’s equally important we make sure every child feels welcome in our schools, so we have some work to do.”

Concern that schools in Fairbanks have a policy allowing information to be withheld from parents was expressed by Rep. Mike Prax, a North Pole Republican. He said “this (bill) isn’t going to solve that one way or the other,” but ultimately parents need to be the ones responsible for their kids.

“Concealing information from parents is grooming,” he said. “It just is. It’s the same thing we’re accusing pimps of in sex trafficking and we’ve got to face that ugly reality.”

Andi Story, a Juneau Democrat, said parents supporting the bill because they feel it will give them more access to school policies and curriculums don’t appear to be fully aware of the rights they already have.

“I think it’s important that everyone feels welcome at schools, and that parents are aware right now that they can review curriculums, they can opt out,” she said. “I just think is important to know that, because some people sounded like they can’t do that right now and I’m glad that’s an option.”

Rep. Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who co-chairs the committee, said he was encouraged since it appears residents from every community in the state were among those testifying. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, offered similar sentiments about the large number of students participating.

“I just think that the young people who spoke were really eloquent and really outdid some of the old people,” he said. “Whether you agree or not with what they said I just want to commend the people who took time out from being a kid.”

Further action on the bill by the committee is likely, with Allard stating proposed amendments by members are due by April 20 and another hearing is planned the following week. But, even if it passes the Republican-led House it appear the bill lacks the votes to advance in the Senate that has a bipartisan majority of nine Democrats and eight Republicans.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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