2015-11-18 / Front Page

Support, concern showed for possible transgender policy


Division showed itself within the Clarence community during Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, as members discussed the possibility of implementing a new policy that would seek to more effectively accommodate students who identify as transgender.

Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks described the intended policy prior to opening the topic for discussion. The Student Gender Identity policy is one, Hicks said, that the district received from its policy service at BOCES.

It contains language that mirrors the guidance sent out by New York State in regard to nondiscriminatory actions toward those students who identify as transgender. The policy makes recommendations regarding records for students who identify as transgender, the use of pronouns and names by district staff, and also discusses possible accommodations for those students in regard to physical education and sports, as well as restrooms and locker rooms.

Currently, the district has anti harassment and anti-discrimination policies in place, though they do not specify transgender situations within them, Hicks said. Additionally, New York State law prohibits discrimination based on sex, with admission to particular courses, methods of instruction or participation on athletic teams. On a federal level, the Title IX provision prohibits discrimination based on sex within school districts that receive federal money.

“I guess the main concern with this policy is in regard to locker room usage,” said board member Roger Showalter. “This new policy states that a transgender student is allowed to use the restroom and locker room that corresponds to the student’s consistently expressed gender identity at school. So does this policy open up the bathrooms and the locker rooms to basically unisex bathrooms and locker rooms?”

“I would say that for restrooms and locker rooms the first order of action would be to have conversations and discussions with the student who is identifying as transgender to see what they were comfortable with,” Hicks responded. “It’s possible that they could be comfortable with a separate changing area that has some type of a curtain. I wouldn’t say that the bathrooms would become unisex. That would not be the case.”

Showalter also expressed concern in the vagueness of the policy’s language and questioned whether the issue would even be considered as a hot topic down the road.

“Transgender seems to be all the news. How do we know it’s not just a passing fad or the whim of the moment?” he asked.

Board member Matthew Stock indicated that the language is intentionally vague in order to allow flexibility in implementation, which he says is a critical component.

“It is a vague statement, but it is a completely contextual statement,” he said. “The folks that are closest on the ground need to be able to evaluate that on a case-by-case basis. From a policy perspective, we run the risk of being too specific and then locked into a policy that doesn’t meet the needs.”

While the board showed a willingness to accommodate every student seeking a level of comfort, concern was raised over how the policy would impact the majority. Board member Jason Lahti asked what would be done in the situation of sex-segregated, overnight field trips.

“I think the rights of the majority of the students, we need to protect,” he said. “I think we need to protect the 99 plus percent that are not in this situation and may not be comfortable.”

The board agreed to table the issue to get a better understanding of the policy’s specifics. Board President MaryEllen Kloss said she would like to see how other school districts have implemented similar policies, and added that the board would also have to figure out a solution if a student who identifies as transgender refused the suggested accommodations.

The meeting’s public comment section brought students, parents and community residents to the microphone as a division displayed itself over whether such transgender accommodations would diminish the comfort of the majority of the student population.

Nancy Showalter was one of two residents who expressed such concern Monday night, saying that when she spoke to her daughter about the issue, her daughter told her she would be uncomfortable sharing a changing room with a male student who identified as female.

Another woman, who said she is a health care professional, asked board members if they knew enough about the transgender concept to make an informed decision.

“What do we really know about this diagnosis, this situation, this choice of a lifestyle? … How many struggling with gender issues return to a healthy state over time? Do we know that statistic?” she asked.

“Prior to the electronic age, we had parents who guided us, religious advisers who guided us, we had community neighborhoods,” she continued. “Now we have the Internet and different forces and sources to educate us.”

She said she believes in “fairness for everyone who attends this school,” but the primary goal is the education of all students. She said she is afraid the board might be “turning this into a civil liberties issue versus an educational issue.”

Resident Alan Bedenko expressed his support for the policy’s implementation and took issue with the notion that the transgender concept could be “a passing fad.”

“Quite frankly, I think that if you have a kid who was born a girl, and coming to school every day as a boy, and identifies as a boy, and wants to use the boys’ bathroom and locker room, and it goes through the process that’s going to be put in place with psychologists and other professionals in consultation with that kid’s parents, I don’t really see what the problem is.”

Two Clarence High School students spoke adamantly in favor of the policy.

Rachel Pinti, a sophomore and member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, noted that last year, the group had just three members. This year, she said, there are over 30, which she attributes to progressing societal acceptance of issues such as the legalization of gay marriage.

“I think that a school’s job is to not only have students graduate successfully, but to respect the integrity of every student,” she said. “I have friends who are gay. I have friends who are straight. I have friends who are transgender. I have family members who identify as transgender.”

“There were a lot of students that showed interest in our club because they felt more comfortable, because they were learning about other people’s experiences and identities,” said Emma Jackson, another member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. “People underestimate how accepting kids have become. I feel like this would be an important issue to ask students where they stand, because it affects students only.”

Pinti, whose mother is a behavioral health nurse and whose father is an Episcopal priest, told the board how her upbringing contributed to her level of acceptance and empathy toward those dissimilar from her.

“I’ve had the opportunity to grow up with two very caring and open minded parents. I think it’s a cool way to grow up, by interacting with people who are different from you,” she said. “I don’t think it matters what age you know what gender you are. The world isn’t black and white like that. It’s kind of hard to speak for someone when you’re not going through the same thing as them.”

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