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Douglas County school board chooses culture war nonsense over helping students

David Colborne
David Colborne
The Douglas County School District offices in Minden. (Mark Hernandez/The Nevada Independent)

When I was little, I once went a little longer than usual between haircuts. As my hair grew longer, I observed that it was longer than the hair of most of my male classmates. Adding two and two as only small children do, I deduced that I must have become a girl.

So, doing what girls do, I used the girls’ bathroom at school.

Unsurprisingly, after this behavior was observed by my classmates — and relayed by my teachers to my parents — I received a somewhat more thorough explanation regarding the differences between boys and girls. I also received a haircut.

What I did not receive was a suspension or any other punishment from my school.

About a week ago, the Douglas County School District followed up on board President Susan Jensen’s proposed policy to require district students to “participate” solely in their birth gender’s sports, bathrooms or locker rooms. If members of the school board get their way, my singular trip to the girl’s bathroom would no longer be an innocent act of ignorance — instead, it would become a violation of district policy.

The proposed policy, to be clear, is not aimed at undergroomed and confused elementary school children, nor are children like my past self likely to suffer the most from the proposed policy should it ever be enacted. The targets of the proposed policy are the transgender students of the Douglas County School District — or cisgender children who express their birth gender nontraditionally. Think boys in kilts, girls in pants, that sort of thing — or merely student-athletes who seem to be a little too good in sports competitions, like the girl who had her gender investigated (guess how?) by the Utah High School Activities Association after the parents of the athletes she beat filed complaints.

Having acknowledged that, it’s also true that policies create their own demand. Meaning, when boards pass policies, especially those designed to target a dozen or two individuals out of a population of nearly 5,500, they add requirements and metrics to ensure the policy is being carried out. Consequently, a lot of students who never would have been treated or identified as transgender (because they’re likely not) may instead be identified and treated as violations of the district’s transgender student policy — and thus, by extension, be procedurally and bureaucratically deemed “transgender” by the very adults who want to abolish the observed existence of transgender students more generally.

Not that school boards in Nevada are empowered to abolish anything of the sort anyway. Per NRS 651.070, it’s illegal in Nevada for providers of public accommodations, like school districts, to discriminate or segregate on the basis of gender identity or expression. Just in case that isn’t clear enough, AB423, if passed as amended, will explicitly prohibit school boards from putting policies in place that do so. Since the authority and responsibility of school boards, per our state constitution, derives from the Legislature, the school board cannot enact a policy which violates existing state statute.

This isn’t a “state’s rights” issue — the State of Nevada, legally speaking, has all of the rights, including the right to dissolve the Douglas County School District or, through a careful last-minute amendment of AB175, replace its elected school board with a wholly appointed one.

I wonder if Gov. Joe Lombardo would veto that?

Additionally, the reasons stated by board members and public commenters to enact the policy in the first place don’t make any logical sense. One frequently repeated reason to support the policy the board's last meeting was to prevent transgender female athletes from taking athletic scholarships from cisgender female athletes — never mind that, as The Onion illustrated through a clever bit of satire recently, there are surely easier ways for a young man to secure a scholarship than through undergoing several years of medical, surgical and psychological treatments while simultaneously learning how to swim competitively.

Considering how I went to elementary school during the Reagan administration — a period not particularly known for its social liberalism or tolerance of what were then considered “alternative lifestyles” — I find it a little baffling that an elementary-aged male student using the girl’s bathroom in a South Lake Tahoe school in 2023 might soon find themselves in considerably more trouble than an elementary-aged male student using the girl’s bathroom in a suburban Southern California school found himself in the 1980s. 

I’m not, however, baffled that Douglas County has chosen this hill — along with a couple of other related hills that will be discussed in a bit — to die upon. Douglas County is just Nye County with better weather, better scenery and considerably more money. The people, the “issues” and the frothingly rabid politics, however, are otherwise the same. 

There was the time, for example, when now-former Assemblyman Jim Wheeler “joked” that he’d vote in favor of slavery if his constituents wanted him to (if the results of his subsequent elections were any indication, his constituents wanted him to — he didn’t come close to losing an election for another decade). Or the time the Douglas County Republican Party expelled Danny and Amy Tarkanian because the Tarkanians, being former Southern Nevadans, actually knew Michele Fiore well enough to know whether she should be trusted with the state’s treasury.

There was also the time a couple of septuagenarians got in a fist fight over whether the county should fund a convention center.

Then there was the time Douglas County hosted an anti-Black Lives Matter rally because the local library made vaguely sympathetic noises in that general direction. The county sheriff responded by refusing to provide police services to the library (unsurprisingly, the crime rate at the library remained unaffected). Then the local civilians got involved, at which point things got a little tense. A low point came when a protestor confidently declared on video that “Hitler was a great Christian man,” but it wasn’t the lowest point — the person using their truck as a battering ram did actual physical damage.

The county’s official response to it all, by the way, was to light some tax money on fire and hire an investigator to determine if the library trustees violated policy by uttering the words “Black Lives Matter,” in that order, on a piece of county stationery. The investigation delivered one firm, actionable deliverable — the 50-page summary they produced was worth roughly $500 per page and their invoice was payable upon receipt.

Maybe I should ask for their agent.

Oh, and did I mention the sundown siren, which was originally used to tell anyone with a darker tan than a malarial Irish poet to get out of town — or else? Even after the ordinance requiring people of color to leave town was overturned in 1974, Minden, the county seat, kept firing up their siren at the same time, each and every day. 

It’s all right, though. After three decades or so, someone got the bright idea to announce that the siren now “honors first responders” — like, presumably, the police who used to round up people of color and quite literally kick them out of town when the dinner siren rang. Oh, and the city changed when the siren blares from 6 p.m. to 5 p.m. And look, the activation of the siren and the enforcement of the original sundown ordinance was all a coincidence. Minden’s siren was originally built to muster the local fire department; it was Gardnerville’s siren that was originally used to enforce the sundown ordinance, not Minden’s, and …

Minden and Gardnerville, for reference, are right next to each other. No more than a mile ever separated the two towns.

Then there’s the small matter of the name of the county itself. Douglas County is named after Stephen A. Douglas, a Democratic senator from Illinois, whose biggest claim to fame these days was in being the loser of the Lincoln-Douglas debates — because he, unlike Abraham Lincoln, supported both the expansion of slavery into new American territories and the Supreme Court’s then-recent decision to categorically revoke citizenship from African Americans, which effectively required nonslave states to return escaped slaves to their owners.

The debates occurred in 1858. Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in 1860. Douglas County was formed in 1861, months after several Southern states announced they were seceding from the union. Douglas County’s forefathers knew who they were naming themselves after and why.

The reason I bring up all of this history isn’t because I’m necessarily trying to paint the residents of Douglas County as the descendants of irredeemably racist segregationists. The population of Douglas County has increased at least eight-fold since the sundown ordinance was overturned and that didn’t happen solely through natural causes. Many of the current residents of Douglas County likely have no direct connection to the laws or injustices of the county’s past.

I bring it up because, while the proposed transgender student policy deservedly attracted most of the attention, the board discussed two other policies which, if enacted, will be every bit as damaging to the students and faculty of the school district. 

The first proposed policy prohibits district staff from applying for entitlements or grants that require conditions to be set upon the district that, and I quote, “promote intersectionality (oppressed and oppressors), equity of outcomes, or the sexualization of students including, but not limited to, the teaching of nontraditional pronouns or genders.” 

Apparently Douglas County School District has enough money set aside for the board to afford to be choosy about where its funds come from. Considering how the Legislature is always running short on money to adequately fund education elsewhere in the state, I’m sure they’ll be delighted to hear this.

The second proposed policy, meanwhile, prohibits a set of doctrines from being taught or implied by educational staff, including the doctrine that individuals are either members of the oppressor class or oppressed class because of their race. The goal of this policy is to ensure the school district “will focus on the facts surrounding” historical and current events and “not on the indoctrination or infusion of opinions, political platforms, beliefs, etc.”

It all sounds quite nice and pleasant at first glance. Who doesn’t want individuals to be treated as individuals? The Declaration of Independence, after all, boldly proclaims that “all men are created equal” — surely that truth is, as the Founding Fathers said, self-evident?

It certainly should have been. Unfortunately, a lot of our nation’s, our state’s and Douglas County’s history in particular have repeatedly denied that self-evident truth. To teach that truth to our children, we need to teach them how and why it was denied in the past so they can learn from the mistakes we, our parents, our grandparents and so on made.

Given that, how, precisely, should a teacher discuss Douglas County’s namesake without discussing the differences of opinions, political platforms and beliefs he had with Abraham Lincoln — especially in relation to the expansion of slavery? 

How, precisely, should a teacher discuss slavery, Juneteenth and the subsequent imposition of Jim Crow — including the development of sundown towns like Douglas County — without discussing oppressors and the oppressed? 

How, precisely, should a teacher discuss the controversy surrounding the siren in Minden and why some residents want it to be turned off without discussing the responsibility present residents might or might not have to address the actions committed by past residents of the county?

How, precisely, should a teacher explain the historical existence of the nearby Stewart Indian School or the Dresslerville Colony without discussing the adverse treatment received by Native Americans after white settlement as a result of their race?

For better or worse, the indoctrination or infusion of opinions, political platforms and beliefs are frequently historical facts. The facts surrounding the board’s decision to introduce policies that prioritize hot-button conservative issues instead of improving classroom safety or academic achievement, for example, are the product of indoctrination, infusion of opinion, political platforms and beliefs in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan board of elected part-time bureaucrats.

If the members of Douglas County’s school board want to serve as partisans in partisan political offices, chasing every hot-button political issue as it surfaces in whatever media they consume, they should resign and run for a partisan office. If that’s not what they actually want, however, then they should remember that school boards are nonpartisan for a reason — and start governing themselves accordingly.

David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Twitter @DavidColborne, or email him at [email protected].


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