South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard vetoed a controversial bill today that would have forced transgender students to use school bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. South Dakota HB 1008 received nationwide attention in recent weeks for its initiative to deny transgender students of civil rights.
Daugaard’s veto came just hours before the bill would have become law. If the governor had not acted before midnight or if he had signed the bill, South Dakota would have become the first state to target transgender youth by restricting their access to school facilities. The Obama Administration has stated that the bill violates Title IX law on anti-discrimination in public schools.
Governor Daugaard stated when the bill landed on his desk that he had never met a transgender individual and was unlikely to do so before making a decision on the bill. In the past week, transgender youth in the state and their supporters pressured the governor to get to know them and hear their personal stories. Daugaard reportedly spent the last week meeting with a few of them.
“It helped me see things through their eyes a little better and see more of their perspective,” Daugaard said after meeting three transgender students last Tuesday. It helped him “put a human face” on the issue, The Argus Leader reported.
In a message to state lawmakers, Daugaard specified his reasons for veto. The message does not criticize the discriminatory policy for the impact it would have on civil rights and is a bit of a cop out. HB 1008, Daugaard writes, “does not address any pressing issue concerning the school districts of South Dakota.”
His basis, as presented in this message to the state house, is that school districts would be susceptible to federal litigation and unable to defend themselves if they were forced to follow the state mandate.
This bill seeks to impose statewide standards on “every restroom, locker room, and shower room located in a public elementary or secondary school.” It removes the ability of local school districts to determine the most appropriate accommodations for their individual students and replaces that flexibility with a state mandate.
If and when these rare situations arise, I believe local school officials are best positioned to address them. Instead of encouraging local solutions, this bill broadly regulates in a manner that invites conflict and litigation, diverting energy and resources from the education of the children of this state.
Preserving local control is particularly important because this bill would place every school district in the difficult position of following state law while knowing it openly invites federal litigation. Although there have been promises by an outside entity to provide legal defense to a school district, this provision is not memorialized in the bill. Nor would such defense eliminate the need for school or state legal counsel, nor avoid expenses relating to expert witnesses, depositions and travel, or other defense costs. Nor does the commitment extend to coverage over settlement or damage expenses. This law will create a certain liability for school districts and the state in an area where no such liability exists today.
Whatever the governor’s reasons, this decision sets a precedent for state lawmakers presented with similar issues and is a victory for the state’s vulnerable transgender children.
The president of the nation’s largest LGBT-rights organization cheered the governor’s decision. “Today, the voices of fairness and equality prevailed, and these students’ rights and dignity prevailed against overwhelming odds and vicious opponents in the state legislature,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.