Arkansas House sends public school bathroom bill to governor’s desk

Arkansas Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, watches the screens as votes are cast on House Bill 1156, which would ban trans students from using the bathroom of their identified gender, during a meeting of the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Little Rock on Wednesday, March 15, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Arkansas House on Wednesday voted along party lines to advance a bill that would limit transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice at public schools.

House Bill 1156 by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, received a vote of 77-15 to concur with a Senate amendment. The measure heads to the governor's desk.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' spokeswoman, Alexa Henning, said earlier this week that Sanders "believes that schools are no place for the radical left's woke agenda" and will sign legislation that focuses on protecting and educating children, not indoctrinating them.

After the House vote, Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said lawmakers were "further stigmatizing and endangering trans youth."

"This harmful and discriminatory legislation invades the privacy and autonomy of trans youth by micromanaging their restroom usage, and subjects them to further bullying, exclusion, and harassment," Dickson said in a written statement provided by a spokesperson. "We urge Governor Sanders to veto this unconstitutional and harmful bill, and to stand with trans youth in Arkansas."

HB1156 would require public schools and open-enrollment public charter schools to prohibit people from using a multiple-occupancy restroom that does not correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate.

The legislation also would apply to places at schools where people "may be in various stages of undress" around others, which would include locker rooms, changing rooms and shower rooms.

Students on overnight trips would have to either share sleeping quarters with one or multiple members of the same sex or be "provided single-occupancy sleeping quarters."

[DOCUMENT: Read the bill headed to Sanders' desk »]

The bill would permit a public school student attending an overnight trip to share sleeping quarters with a member of the opposite sex if the member of the opposite sex is a member of the public school student's immediate family.

Under the bill, schools would have to provide "a reasonable accommodation" for those unwilling to use a multioccupancy restroom or changing areas designated for the individual's sex.

If enacted, the bill would direct allegations of noncompliance to the state Professional Licensure Standards Board.

In cases of noncompliance, the board would have to subject applicable school administrators or teachers to a fine of at least $1,000. The bill also would permit the board to bring additional sanctions against school officials and educators.

The penalties could apply to superintendents of public school districts, the principals of public schools, or directors or administrative heads of open-enrollment public schools.

A teacher or supervisor of a classroom or school-sponsored activity also could face penalties if found specifically non-compliant.

The bill would create a cause of action for parents with children attending public school districts or open-enrollment public charter schools that violate the bill.

Bentley has said members of the Conway School Board brought her the idea for the bill. The board passed a similar policy in October that caused a backlash among some within the community.

Bentley told the Senate Education Committee last week she wanted to create a state law that would shield school districts from lawsuits if they enacted a similar bathroom policy.

Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley and Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.