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Arkansas committee hears debate on "bathroom bill"

Arkansas State Capitol
Jacob Kauffman

Lawmakers heard questions and comments from members of the public Thursday over a so-called “bathroom bill” currently making its way through the Arkansas Legislature.

House Bill 1156 would ensure no public or charter school student is required to share sleeping quarters, restrooms or changing areas with members of the opposite biological sex. That could lead to problems for transgender or nonbinary students seeking to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. School officials who do not follow the policy could face a 15% reduction in salary under the bill.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville. She was joined during the committee meeting by two members of the Conway School Board, Linda Hargis and David Naylor Jr.

Hargis said the bill was designed to protect children. She said transgender students have the right to their feelings and to change their name, but not to choose which bathroom they use.

“Those rights stop at that door of that restroom or that locker room,” she said. “Those girls have rights, they have the right to feel safe and to feel comfortable.”

Hargis repeatedly referenced a sexual assault case from Virginia where the perpetrator was alleged to have been transgender. Recent reporting and court filings show the student was not trans and the school did not have a gender-inclusive bathroom policy.

“One is too many,” Hargis said, in reference to the Virginia case.

Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, said cases where a transgender person was alleged to have committed assault have nothing to do with that person's gender identity.

“There is some other issue than gender dysphoria,” she explained.

David Naylor Jr. said he supported the bill after an overnight school trip in his district caused a transgender female student to sleep in the same room as two biological female students. He said this was brought to the attention of the superintendent.

“We are K-12,” he said, professing his belief that the policy will benefit all students. “You have to remember, this goes down to the middle schools.”

Clayton Crockett, the father of the transgender student in question, spoke on behalf of his daughter about the potential negative emotional impacts of the legislation.

“I can tell you she feels targeted,” he said. “She feels discriminated against. She feels bullied. She feels singled out."

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned how the rules would be enforced. She pointed out that it is often difficult to identify which students are transgender.

Rep. Bentley said that teachers know students well enough to know a child's biological sex.

“Every student has got to go to the nurse,” she said. “Every student that is enrolled in school has got to have a birth certificate. It's not like it's some mystery as to who the student is when the student enrolls in school.”

Rep. Garner responded, saying many Arkansas schools are too big for teachers to know each student individually.

Bentley disagreed, saying she didn’t want to get into hypotheticals.

“The teachers know every student,” she said.

The committee adjourned without taking a vote on the proposal.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.