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LGTBQ advocacy group files a federal civil rights complaint against North Carolina’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ rules

The Asheville City School board presides over about 4,000 students, including those at Asheville High School.
Asheville High School
The Asheville City School board presides over about 4,000 students, including those at Asheville High School.

This week, the Campaign for Southern Equality, a LGBTQ advocacy organization, filed a federal Title IX complaint in response to the harmful effects that they say State Bill 49 and House Bill 574 are having on North Carolina students, especially those who are transgender and gender nonconforming.

The 113-page complaint gathered testimonials from more than 20 students, parents, and school faculty. It alleged that public schools are “systematically marginalizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students in violation of Title IX.”

SB 49, also known as the “Parent’s Bill of Rights” or “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” was passed by the General Assembly in August 2023, overriding a veto from Governor Roy Cooper. HB 574, a law that prohibits trans girls and women from competing in female sports in public schools, was also passed through a similar veto override.

SB 49 strengthens parental control and censures discussion around LGBTQ+ topics at public schools. Specifically, it requires parental approval for mental health counseling, mandates schools to notify a parent or guardian if their child changes their name or pronouns, and bans instruction on gender identity or sexuality in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Schools across the state are approaching the law differently

The deadline for school districts to comply with SB49 was Jan. 1. Some districts, including Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County, have struggled with how to implement the law in a way that affirms LGBTQ+ students.

Buncombe County Schools, the largest school system in Western North Carolina, approved implementation of the measure for its 45 schools at the Dec. 7 meeting.

Its policy requires parental notification when a student changes their name or pronouns, but allows teachers to refer students to their principal first if they think the student isn’t safe at home.

In the Triangle, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board voted to not require parental notification for pronoun changes or prohibit classroom discussion about gender identity, sexuality or sexual activity, as reported by the News & Observer.

The Asheville City School Board still hasn’t agreed on how to interpret the law. In December, Board Chair George Sieburg told BPR that he believes the intent of the law is to “silence the voice of our students who are transgender or gender fluid,” and that he hopes the school board will be able to enact policies and procedures that “explicitly show we’re going to support our students through this.”

Asheville City Schools has postponed a vote on the law several times in the past few months. It now plans to hear public comment on Feb. 5 and take a final vote on Feb. 12.

The complaint alleges a ‘hostile educational environment’

The complaint that Campaign for Southern Equality filed on Jan. 31 alleges that the state’s Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction are responsible for “barring LGBTQ-affirming content, outing transgender students, erecting barriers to LGBTQ students receiving needed health care at school.”

These actions create a “hostile educational environment” and violate Title IX’s “obligations to provide every student with a safe and non-discriminatory environment,” the complaint alleged.

The Department of Public Instruction did not respond for comment.

Craig White, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Southern Equality, told BPR the complaint only “scratches the surface” of the SB49’s effects on students.

“As we receive testimony and hear stories from all over the state, this situation is so much worse than what I expected,” White said.

“[The complaint] doesn't get into the way that this legislation, which targets LGBTQ students, has really empowered both adults and students to be bullying queer and trans kids. And that's happening in school districts, whether they're progressive or conservative. We've heard lots of reports of bullying on the increase.”

He continued, “And it's not surprising when the general assembly decides to target a specific group of people because of their identity that a lot of other bullies and bigots are going to follow their lead.”

This is not the first time a local organization has filed a Title IX complaint in response to SB49. In December, three local LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations –Youth Outright, Campaign For Southern Equality, and PFLAG Asheville – filed a local Title IX complaint to the Buncombe County School Board.

The board dismissed the complaint , citing lack of specificity. Buncombe’s Title IX coordinator Shanon Martin wrote the complaint must “specify an alleged perpetrator or victim of sexual harassment.”

What’s next?

The federal Office for Civil Rights and Department of Justice have a “pretty serious backlog,” according to White.

“We don't know how long this process is going to take,” he said. “They will assign a federal civil rights investigator to look into our allegation. And if they find that there is in fact discrimination and a violation of Title IX, then they will work with the [Department of Public Instruction] and the [State Board of Education] to remedy the harm and to come back into compliance.”

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.
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