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S.D. Considering Changes to Policy on Transgender High School Athletes

In response to legislative attempts to quash its policy governing transgender student-athletes, the South Dakota High School Activities Association considered changes to the policy at a board of directors meeting Wednesday.

The state association's board of directors originally adopted the policy by a 4-1 vote last June. It allowed high school student-athletes to participate on teams "consistent with their gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on a student's records." Transgender students wishing to participate on sex-segregated sports teams that differ from the sex assigned to them at birth would first have to notify their school, submitting documentation proving their gender identification. Upon receiving that information, the school is required to submit a "Transgender Application" to the state association, which refers the application and documentation to its Gender Identification Eligibility Committee for a decision.

The policy drew the ire of some Republican lawmakers, who introduced legislation this past legislative session to overturn it. While the bill passed through the state House of Representatives on a 51-16 margin, it languished in the state Senate before ultimately failing in the Senate education committee. Another bill, which likewise passed 46-23 in the state House before failing in the Senate, sought to prohibit the association from "establish[ing] policy relating to sexuality or gender identity, other than the basic distinction between the male and female high school activities."

Rep. Jim Bolin, the House sponsor of the bill, told Dana Hess of the S.D. Newspaper Association that the activities association "has made a very bad decision with little or no publicity or public input on this question that raises profound issues about the nature of high school sports in our state."

In response to the legislative pushback, the state association discussed a revised version of the policy at its board of directors meeting Wednesday, which Bob Mercer of the Rapid City Journal shared. Instead of referring a student's Transgender Application to an SDHSAA-affiliated Gender Identification Eligibility Committee, the new policy would require the state association to send it to an independent hearing officer for review. Instead of bearing responsibility for the final decision, the independent hearing officer would make a recommendation for the association's board of directors, which would wield final say over whether a transgender student may participate on the sports team aligned with their gender identity. Unlike under the current policy, in which transgender students may appeal the Gender Identification Eligibility Committee's decision to the state association's board of directors, the new policy would make the board of directors' decision final.

To gather input on these proposed changes, the association's board of directors sent a survey to 114 member school superintendents, some of whom skipped certain questions. Of the 99 who replied to whether they viewed a need for a statewide transgender policy, 60 said "yes," 17 said "to some degree yes," while only 22 said either "no" or "to some degree no." Eighty-five of 98 superintendents said their school district did not prefer having each compose its own policy.

From there, opinions were divided. Fifty-three of 98 superintendents would at least to some degree like the state school board to develop a suggested policy for transgender athletes, although only 49 of 99 believed such a policy would be at least somewhat sufficient if the SDHSAA did not have a policy of its own. Fifty-one of 88 superintendents were at least somewhat opposed to having the state legislature develop a policy for transgender athletes, with one superintendent anonymously commenting, "[It's] not the legislature's position to establish policy for the school districts as a matter of practice."

The association's board of directors ultimately tabled any changes until its next meeting in August, according to Mercer, although it did reportedly reach a "loose consensus [that] transgender eligibility decisions to be made by independent hearing officer and board takes appeals." In the meantime, the existing policy will remain in place as is. Wayne Carney, the state association's executive director, told The Associated Press that no student has applied under the policy to date.

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