2017-10-27 / Front Page

Schools to adopt transgender policy

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Following a first reading at its most recent meeting, the South Portland Board of Education is on track to adopt a policy to guide its handling of transgender students.

If adopted in its final reading Nov. 13, the new policy would allow students to self-declare a gender which may be different than their physical attributes without mandating that the student to be in the act of medically transitioning away from the gender they were at birth. The only requirement is that the student consistently asserts his or her preferred gender identity.

“This involves more than a casual declaration of gender identity or expression, but it does not necessarily require a medical diagnosis,” the policy reads.

The proposed policy defines gender identity as “a person’s deeply held sense or psychological knowledge of their own gender,” noting that, “one’s gender identity can be the same or different than the gender assigned at birth.” However, it also notes that “for most elementary and secondary students, this involves no, or minimal medical interventions.” Instead, it notes, the process for minors is more often limited to an outward expression of gender preference “through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, activities, voice or mannerisms.”

“In most cases, transgender students under the age of 18 are in the process of social transition from one gender to another,” the policy observes.

Once a student has notified a building administrator or guidance counselor of a disparity between physical and preferred gender, a meeting will be held to discuss the student’s “particular circumstances and needs.” That would result in development of a formal, individual plan to address those needs. Although the policy is nonspecific as to what, exactly, would be included in any such plan, it does say the plan “should address how to deal with disclosures that the student is transgender.”

The policy notes that the student’s transgender status should be kept confidential, if the student so desires. The policy authorizes school officials to keep secret any differences between a student’s physical gender and the gender norms expressed at school from all members of the public, including the student’s own parents or guardians.

“The school recognizes that some students may not have disclosed information to their parents/guardians,” the policy reads. “If the parents/guardians are not aware, thoughtful consideration will be given to the sharing of information. In some cases, a student may want their parents/guardians, school staff, and other students to know, and in other cases the student may not want this information to be widely known. School staff should take care to follow the student’s plan and not to inadvertently disclose information that is intended to be kept private or that is protected from disclosure, such as confidential medical information.”

Once a plan is in place, whether adopted with or without knowledge of a student’s parents or guardians, the student “should be addressed by school staff and other students by the name and pronoun corresponding to their gender identity that is consistently asserted at school,” the policy says.

However, the proposal notes that recognition of a new name and gender identity is for day-to-day activities only. The name and gender of the student on official permanent records of the school department will not be changed unless it is provided with legal documentation that a name and/or gender has been changed in accordance with any applicable laws.

Even lacking a legal change in status, the development of a transgender plan will allow the student to use the bathrooms and locker rooms applicable to the chosen gender. The student will also be free to conform to the school dress code of the chosen gender and to participate in any activity where students may be separated by gender.

In addition to using bathrooms and locker rooms corresponding to a chosen gender, students who identify as transgender “will not be required to use a locker room that conflicts with the gender identity consistently asserted at school.” Meanwhile, “a transgender student who expresses a need for privacy will be provided with reasonable alternative facilities or accommodations, such as using a separate stall, a staff facility or separate schedule.”

Use of preferred bathrooms or other special accommodations will be limited to South Portland facilities, however, and will not apply when students are off-campus. The proposal notes specifically that “interscholastic athletic activities should be addressed through the Maine Principals Association Transgender Participation Policy.”

According to Assistant Superintendent Kathy Germani, the new policy was first presented to the school board this past spring. At that time, the issue was at the forefront of national headlines based on a so-called “bathroom bill” working its way through the North Carolina Legislature, which would have required the use of public bathroom facilities according to the gender listed on a person’s birth certificate.

The local policy was developed, Germani said, “based on our concerns and what we know about our transgender students who are attending all of our schools.”

The school board held a workshop on the proposal Sept. 25. The South Portland School Department does not record or keep minutes of workshop sessions. However, board Chairman Richard Matthews said in an interview with the Sentry conducted the day after the meeting that it featured testimony from “a couple of parents” of transgender students. He identified one student as a person now in college who transitioned from male to female when a junior in high school, and the other as a current freshman who switched in the other direction, from female to male. Matthews said the issue is more far-reaching locally than many people may realize, adding that one member of the school board has a brother who is transgender.

“The board was very open and accepting, and was, I think, very moved by the stories that the parents presented,” he said, describing the workshop. “It’s a new situation for all of us. I’ve been around for a long time and on the board for a long time, and this is totally new for me.

“It’s such a new subject, and it’s such a sensitive subject, that you just want to make sure you’re not disrespecting anybody, and you want to make sure you can really see both sides of the story.”

Matthews said questions from board members were few, although he and Superintendent Ken Kunin both questioned if the policy was truly needed, and if it sets a poor precedent by providing private bathroom and locker room facilities to transgender students upon request, but not to other students who may feel uncomfortable in those settings, for reasons of their own.

“We wanted to know why people might feel we need special policies in place, because all of our policies protect all of our children, whether you’re black or white, no matter what religion, or where you’re from, or whatever,” Matthews said.

One question that did not come up was whether there is an age at which it is actually too soon to recognize a student’s gender choice, either with or without parental knowledge. Can a first grade boy declare as female, get a transgender plan put in place that allows him to wear a dress to school without his parents knowledge and to freely use the girl’s bathroom?

“We just didn’t have that conversation,” Matthews said. “It was more informational. I think that at the first policy reading, there may be questions like that.”

That first reading was conducted at the Oct. 11 school board meeting. At that time, Germani said the draft policy was shared with the parents who attended the September workshop. No comment was offered from the parents, or any member of the school board, she said, and thus no changes were made from the version first put on the table earlier in the year.

The first reading of the new transgender policy passed without question or comment from the board, apart from recognition by policy committee Chairman Elyse Tipton that the earlier workshop had been “very helpful.” The South Portland Board of Education does not conduct a formal vote on policy changes in the first reading. The first public vote will come with final passage Nov. 13.

“We want people to be safe and we want our administrators to have a clear pathway to help support those students as we move forward, and we want the board to have a clear pathway to be able to articulate around that,” Germani said.

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