Kearney, Norfolk school officials explain trans student-athlete policies

School board officials offer a challenge and advice to other school boards and the Legislature after passing their own policies earlier this year

By: - September 5, 2023 5:00 am

An athlete sprinting off the starting blocks. (Getty Images)

LINCOLN — As the Nebraska Legislature is poised to take up a proposal next year regarding transgender student-athletes, local K-12 school boards are getting in front of the legislation.

OutNebraska, a leading LGBTQ organization in the state, hosts a queer field day on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023, in Omaha, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Kearney Public Schools and Norfolk Public Schools are at least two Nebraska districts that have passed more restrictive policies this year than the rules adopted by the Nebraska School Activities Association. The local policies require students in grades 6-12 to participate in sports according to their sex at birth.

Kearney’s policy passed 4-2 on March 6 during a procedural vote and passed unanimously April 10 as part of the board’s consent agenda. The Norfolk board passed its policy 5-1 on Aug. 14.

Kearney Superintendent Jason Mundorf said policy conversations started in the fall of 2022 after some trans middle school students expressed interest in competing. The NSAA’s guidance governs high school sports, Mundorf said, and administrators felt they needed to provide clarity.

“If we didn’t, I felt like this poor kid and the family was going to become a talking point,” Mundorf said. “And that’s pretty unfair to the kid.”

Norfolk Superintendent Jami Jo Thompson said in a statement she does not anticipate many students being turned away but said that, if they are, the district will help them find a different activity.

Lawmaker marches on with LB 575

The local action comes as State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha has made clear Legislative Bill 575 will be a priority for her in 2024. Restrictions for collegiate athletics could come in 2025, Kauth told the Nebraska Examiner on Aug. 27.

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha speaks Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023, at an event featuring former swimmer Riley Gaines in La Vista, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LB 575 would define K-12 bathrooms, locker rooms and sporting teams as male or female, according to students’ sex at birth. Kauth said Aug. 23 she is pleased with the action Kearney and Norfolk took and anticipates her bill will pass next year. 

The bill has not advanced from the Education Committee but will carry over to the 2024 session.

“We want to make sure that we give them [Kearney and Norfolk] the support from the state so that they have the infrastructure that they need,” Kauth said. 

Getting to passage, however, could be tricky. A bill proposed by Kauth this year on trans youth related to gender-affirming care, LB 574, became a defining point of the 2023 session with months-long filibusters that brought the Legislature to a divisive crawl.

Some of Kauth’s colleagues have said they would like to see local school boards or the State Board of Education step up, not the Legislature.

Difficulty in replicating NSAA policy

School board members in Norfolk and Kearney who spoke to the Examiner said they reviewed the NSAA Gender Participation Policy, with many noting its strict guidelines and efforts to address many issues when it was passed seven years ago.

Between 2017 and January 2023, the NSAA has said, five students had used the policy to play sports consistent with their gender identity.

Drew Blessing, president of the Kearney school board, said he is “fairly comfortable” with the NSAA policy but expressed concern about how some of those processes — such as finding health care professionals for a committee — could be replicated at the middle school level.

“That was probably the biggest factor in my decision, to be quite honest,” said Blessing, who supported the policy.

Importance of local conditions

Blessing said communities looking at implementing similar policies need to think of their community’s needs and take the appropriate action that best fits those.

Kearney and Norfolk high school student populations

Kearney High School: About 1,550 students enrolled. About 80% participate in extracurriculars or athletics.

Norfolk Senior High School: About 1,350 students enrolled last year. About half were involved in one or more activities.

Source: School district officials

Kearney board member John Icenogle said the district didn’t “rush” to be first but wanted to meet some administrators’ wishes for guidance at the middle school level, part of his reason for support. Kearney board members had considered a different policy that would have tried to replicate the NSAA policy down to the middle school level, but Icenogle said he advocated for a uniform policy.

Mundorf noted Kearney’s policy also applies to non-transgender students, such as blocking girls from playing football, for example. The district recently approved girls’ wrestling as a result.

Cindy Booth said she voted for the Norfolk policy because she believes there are only two genders and said the NSAA policy opens up the possibility that a student could claim to be transgender just to compete.

A health care provider who treats trans youth, Dr. Alex Dworak, said this summer that the idea a student would transition for a sports advantage is “absolutely absurd” because of other stressors the student would face.

Booth said she would rather keep the discussions out of state and especially federal hands as she is a “great believer” in addressing issues at the local level.

“We’re just trying to do the best we can to protect the most students,” Booth said.

No need for a ‘knee-jerk reaction’

Two of the three school board members who voted against the policies — Dave Brandt of Kearney and Beth Shashikant of Norfolk — said they did not see the need for change. Kathy Gifford, who voted against the Kearney measure, did not respond to requests for comment.

Brandt said he has not seen a case of unfairness or safety warranting a “knee-jerk reaction,” though he said he would have supported a policy to replicate the NSAA policy down to the middle school level. 

Until a situation occurs, Brandt said, he encourages other districts to wait and see how things go. He said the rules should be made by the NSAA or another athletic governing board.

“I don’t think the effort was anything positive,” Brandt said.

Brandt faced a recall effort after the March vote in part because he left a portion of the meeting to attend his son’s concert. The meeting had been moved from its original date, conflicting with the concert. The recall failed.

Shashikant said Norfolk has never had an issue with a transgender student and said a case-by-case model — particularly for a handful of students compared to thousands of total student-athletes in the state — would be better than a blanket ban.

She said the policy takes a group of students already at higher risk for suicide and mental health issues and says, “You don’t belong here.”

“If that’s not hateful, I don’t know what is,” Shashikant said.

Policy ‘without a doubt’ harmful

Blessing said he does not believe Kearney’s policy came from a place of hate, though some supporters of such policies do use hate as justification. Blessing noted a case in Canada this summer when a man stopped a track-and-field event and questioned a 9-year-old girl’s gender, falsely accusing her of being trans.

Icenogle said policymakers should take political talking points out of the conversation because there are good people for and against such measures, wanting to do what’s right.

“I’m not sure that that’s possible, but when we boil it down to just political fighting from the right versus the left, we do lose sight of working for the best interests of the kids,” Icenogle said.

Blessing said schools must support their trans students and said he’ll push back on anyone who seeks to weaponize Kearney’s actions. He offered a challenge to school board peers across the state and state lawmakers: acknowledge the students behind a policy that is, “without a doubt,” harmful.

“No one has a right to bully or humiliate students. No one has a right to question a trans person’s right to exist,” Blessing said. “I will stand very strongly against that type of behavior.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Nebraska School Activities Association.


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, double-majoring in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C., and has reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan.