Lawmakers push schools to consider transgender sports policy

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Republican lawmakers pushed the state's high school activities association Wednesday to reconsider its policy of allowing transgender students to compete as the gender with which they identify.

The association currently allows transgender athletes to get an exemption to compete as the gender that is different from that on their birth certificate. But a similar policy in Connecticut is being challenged by the U.S. Department of Education and by a federal lawsuit brought by the families of three cisgender female high school runners who competed against transgender athletes.

Dan Swartos, the executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, said the association would like to see the outcome of that lawsuit before reconsidering its policy.

But Republican lawmakers on the Government Operations and Audit Committee asked him in a Wednesday meeting to consider sending a legal analysis of the association's policy to school boards and having them weigh in. Swartos said he would consider it.

School boards across South Dakota would need to vote on any change to rules on athletic participation. The Legislature could also pass a bill to ban transgender athletes from competing as the gender with which they identify.

Currently, there are no transgender high school athletes competing in girls sports, according to Swartos. There are a small number of transgender athletes competing in boys sports.

The lawsuit in Connecticut arose after lawyers from the conservative nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom filed a Title IX complaint on behalf of high school athletes who lost to two transgender competitors in girls track. The complaint contends that the transgender girls have an unfair physical advantage that violates Title IX, the federal law designed to ensure equal opportunities for women and girls in education, including athletics.

The Department of Education has threatened to withhold federal funding over Connecticut's policy. But transgender rights activists have called the threat an effort by the Trump administration to attack transgender students.

Speaker Steven Haugaard, a Sioux Falls Republican, has said he is looking into the South Dakota policy to ensure that schools are aware of their legal and financial liability.

Swartos presented lawmakers with the results of a survey he sent to school administrators in summer 2019. Over 80% of administrators who responded supported the current policy.

But Haugaard took issue with how Swartos conducted the survey and asked him to send schools legal analysis and give school boards an opportunity to respond.

Sen. Susan Wismer, one of two Democrats on the committee, said the pressure on the issue amounted to unnecessary targeting of transgender children.

“I find this obsession with the potential of a transgender athlete creating unfair competition in interscholastic athletics petty, mystifying and obnoxious,” said Wismer, who is from Britton.

But Rep. Sue Peterson, a Republican from Sioux Falls and the committee chair, said that the policy deserved attention because developments at the national level could affect schools in the state.

“This is not petty," she said. “This is not minute."