Despite Opposition, Nebraska State Colleges System Expands Gender Identity Protections

Nov. 12, 2021, 1:41 p.m. ·

Nebraska State Colleges System's General Counsel Kristin Divel speaks. She's sitting down, wearing eye glasses, with blonde hair.
Nebraska State College System's General Counsel Kristin Divel answers questions from the Board about the policies. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Despite drawing criticism from Governor Pete Ricketts, receiving hundreds of emails, and hearing public comments for the first time, the Nebraska State Colleges Board passed two policies that protect against gender identity and more, late Thursday.

There’s about 50 people in a conference room at Wayne State College. In the corner, there’s a sign up sheet with seven names. Two women from out of town and five students are on the list to share their opinions about two proposed Nebraska State Colleges Board policies relating to gender identity, chosen names, and more.

Nebraska State Colleges System Chancellor Paul Turman
Nebraska State Colleges System Chancellor Paul Turman said he doesn't recall a time where he received an email before a board meeting that's related to the agenda. (Photo Courtesy Nebraska State Colleges System)

"We've never had anybody external to an employee or a student come and give public comment," said Paul Turman, Chancellor of the Nebraska State College System, which oversees the Wayne, Chadron and Peru state colleges. He's not a member of the Board.

He personally received about 300 emails since the board proposed changes to its anti-discrimination policy. The updates include definitions of discrimination relating to gender identity, race, pregnancy and more.

Wayne State College Senior Audrey Wohorthing disagrees with the policies. She believes the principles of conservative Nebraskans, like hers, should be reflected in policies impacting students.

"I believe the policy 5007 that this board is considering today is in direct contradiction to the feelings of Nebraskans," she said.

Wayne State College Senior Audrey Wohorthing speaks to the Board. She's blonde and wearing a blue suit.
Wayne State College Senior and Resident Assistant Audrey Wohorthing encourages the Board to reject updates to the anti-discrimination policy. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

In an online statement, the Nebraska Family Alliance said "ideologically driven policies" would “allow biological men in women’s bathrooms.” There wasn’t a representative from the alliance in the meeting.

However, Kaye Karmann of Columbus shared her concerns for the safety of women.

"What do you say to the parents of a raped child, that resulted because you would not listen to the voice of the Nebraska taxpayers, whose tax dollars are used to pay for what is taught in the classroom," she said.

The proposed policy doesn’t mention bathrooms, but it was an example of gender identity discrimination in the first draft. Chancellor Paul Turman said he received emails from people believing that example won’t make campuses safe anymore. But, he said gender identity protections have been in place since 2015.

"Well, if you've been on our campus for the last seven years, I think you would recognize that it has been safe," he said.

Kaye Karmann of Columbus. She's wearing a white sweater and has short grey hair.
Kaye Karmann of Columbus urges the Board to scrap policy 5007 (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Nebraska State College’s General Counsel Kristin Divel said they updated the anti-discrimination policy this year because they had to include new law protections for pregnant women and people of color.

"The policy drafts were not intended to stir up controversy or be political," she said. "These policies were just intended to be transparent about the working conditions for our employees."

The Board also proposed new policy 5012 for employees to be called by their chosen name and gender identity. Governor Pete Ricketts sent a letter to the board Wednesday, that said the policy would discourage students and staff from speaking freely about their opinions against gender ideology. Abbey Larson disagrees. She’s president of Wayne State College PRIDE, an on-campus group that promotes LGBTQ rights.

"I would like to point out that this policy does not punish people for not knowing someone's pronouns or name," Larson said. "Instead, it encourages an inclusive environment that can only benefit the learning of students and staff."

The same policy for employees has been in place for students since July. Divel said they received some comments requesting the board to remove protections for people on the basis of sexual orientation and identity.

"To be clear, asking the Board to remove those protections, is asking the Board to allow discrimination against employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That's in violation of federal law," Divel said.

Chadron State College Student Trustee Ruth Mencia holds the microphone and addresses the Board.
Chadron State College Student Trustee Ruth Mencia supports the policies. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Chadron State College Student Trustee Ruth Mencia understands people’s security concerns about the policies. But, she said focusing on diversity and equity goes beyond racial, cultural and religious differences.

"You know, our world is changing very rapidly. And we all deserve a sense of importance and respect," she said. "I think this policy does support that."

In the end, it took just about an hour for the board to vote 4-2 to pass policies 5007 and 5012. Board Chair Jess Zeiss and Trustee Bob Engles voted against both policies.