Utah parents complained a high school athlete might be transgender after she beat their daughters

The school and the Utah High School Activities Association investigated the athlete, without letting her or her parents know.

A Utah school investigated a high school athlete — digging into her records back to kindergarten — after she defeated two other girls and their parents then questioned whether she was transgender.

School officials never told the winning student and her family about the review of her student file “to keep the matter private,” said David Spatafore, the spokesperson for the Utah High School Activities Association.

But it came after the parents of the second and third place finishers filed a complaint with UHSAA, which oversees high school sports in the state. The girl won first place in a competition last year “by a wide margin,” Spatafore said during a legislative hearing Wednesday on transgender athletes.

The association often gets complaints, including “when an athlete doesn’t look feminine enough,” he said, adding that it looks into each one. In this case, the school did an initial review of the winning student’s high school record and saw she was registered as a female student.

Spatafore said the UHSAA then instructed the school to dig further “to double check.” School officials called her middle school and elementary school to look at her file, he noted.

“The school went back to kindergarten,” Spatafore said, “and she’d always been a female.”

“If someone has been a female since kindergarten,” he added, it’s likely they didn’t transition genders.

Spatafore said he would not reveal the winning student’s grade, school or sport to protect her identity. But he used the example to show lawmakers that the association has responded to and investigated complaints regarding transgender athletes and that it intends to follow the new law now banning them from playing on girls sports teams in Utah high schools.

It raised questions, though, about how far the association will go in looking at private student records — and not involving the family when a concern is raised.

Spatafore said the student and her family weren’t told because it might be offensive or embarrassing that someone thought the girl was transgender; he said she wasn’t told to protect her. The parents would’ve been involved “if needed,” Spatafore said. But he felt the school was able to clear up concerns by looking at her records instead.

“If all of the questions about eligibility were answered by the school or the feeder system schools, there was no reason to make it a personal situation with a family or that athlete,” he added.

Lawmakers didn’t question the process.

But Sue Robbins, a member of the Transgender Advisory Council of Equality Utah, says there should be questions about it. UHSAA doesn’t currently have a written policy on when and how it investigates students’ records and who is told. It should, she said.

“Where does the UHSAA get their authority to go investigate? Where is it in their policy? If they’re just going to do it when they’re yelled at,” Robbins said, parents will start accusing everyone. “If they’re going to examine a level of records without telling the athlete, they should have a policy behind it. Otherwise, what constrains their behavior?”

Robbins acknowledged some of the social implications of letting an athlete know about an investigation, causing concern and possible isolation. “It can be harmful from that perspective,” she said.

But it’s also a concern for invasion of privacy without telling them, she believes.

Robbins wants UHSAA to think about the issue further and draft a process.

“We warned about this being a possibility, that everyone would accuse everyone who is successful of being transgender,” she said. “It becomes about judging women’s bodies. And no body is safe.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also addressed a question from reporters on the issue during his monthly news conference Thursday. He said the complaint from the parents causes him concern.

“My goodness, we’re living in this world where we’ve become sore losers, and we’re looking for any reason why our kid lost,” he said. “I have a real problem with that story. ... I just wish we could be a little more thoughtful in life and a little less critical of other people.”

Cox originally vetoed the ban on transgender girls playing on girls teams earlier this year. And though he said Thursday that he appreciates fairness in sports, “making up allegations like that are pretty disturbing to me.”

He said parents, including himself, often get overly involved when their kids are competing. He said he’s yelled at referees before. But the complaint, the governor added, crossed a line.

The complaint came last year, when the UHSAA had a process for transgender athletes that required them to register as transgender and be on a year of hormone blockers before they could compete on a team that was not their sex assigned at birth.

Many parents raised complaints, Spatafore said, accusing other students of being transgender and having an advantage. None turned out to be verified.

The state had one registered transgender female athlete competing last year on a girls team, he said.

This year, after a law passed by the Legislature took effect in July — overriding Cox’s veto — transgender girls are banned from playing on girls teams in high school.

That’s currently being challenged in court by three transgender girls who want to play with girls. If a judge grants an injunction, then a commission will go into effect and will make decisions on which transgender girls can compete. The members are set to evaluate a transgender player’s wingspan, weight and height — and whether a girl is taking hormone blockers — to determine if she might have an unfair advantage, according to the Legislature’s plan.

Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, who sponsored the legislation banning transgender girls from competing on girls teams, said she wants UHSAA to enforce the law. She said she worked for two years writing the bill and is frustrated by any effort not to comply.

“Despite the fact that a judge might be ruling or someone is suing, this is the law,” she said. Not following it, “undermines our process of trying to create process and laws.”