Schools evaluate transgender policies

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Districts differ on approaches to President's directive

Following a directive from President Barack Obama, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, school districts in Barry County are evaluating policies and procedures regarding transgender students, and the five local districts have a mixed bag of approaches.

The directive, which does not carry the weight of law but may lead to a district being disqualified from federal funding via Title IX, says regarding restrooms and locker rooms, a school may provide separate facilities on the basis of sex, but must allow transgender students access to such facilities consistent with their gender identity, or to use individual-user facilities when other students are not required to do so. A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy.

Despite all local school districts saying they have never had dealings with transgender students, each district is still crafting an approach based on the directive.

Cassville

Richard Asbill, Cassville superintendent, said the first responsibility of any public school district is to provide and free, appropriate and safe education environment for all students, free of any discrimination or harassment.

"Through those goals, our hope is we already take a position against bullying and harassment issues any students face," he said. "Specifically, when looking at policies for transgender students, we have been provided a couple versions of Missouri School Board Association policies, which are based on the guidelines from the departments of justice and education. What we have already covers issues of religious affiliation, ethnicity and socioeconomic differences, and it's important the community understands what the school board and the district do are direct reflections of all the communities making up the school district."

Asbill said the district gets a significant amount of money for the breakfast and lunch programs, federal dollars funneled through the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"I don't think they'll make an example out of Cassville," Asbill said. "They are looking at more urban and suburban districts that deal more with these types of issues. But, it's still an issue for our community and parents, and I've received several phone calls.

"I've fielded questions before for gay and lesbian students, making sure we address any anti-bullying or anti-harassment needs, but I have never been asked anything about transgender rights."

Asbill said if such an issue arises, the district would treat it the same as any other civil rights issue, such as a religious or ethnic conflict.

"The students and parents would meet with the building principal and see what the need is," he said. "It would be the same as any other student with a special need."

Asbill said the reason for the meeting is to formulate a plan that accommodates the trans student, as well as all other students.

"I do not believe we should allow a male or female to make a gender identity choice and change from one day to the next without meeting with the parents and providing the appropriate accommodations for the safety of all students," he said. "I don't feel it's safe for anyone to change today, then change tomorrow. That may lead to harassment."

Asbill said Cassville has a few gender-neutral facilities, but 90 percent of the district's restrooms are gender specific.

Southwest

Southwest Superintendent Bob Walker said his district is taking a different approach, keeping in place current guidelines.

"At this point, we will continue to use what we have in place, which are the guidelines for students, staff and visitors," he said. "Concerning bathrooms, locker rooms and showers, people must use the facility that aligns with the sex they were given at birth."

Walker said the district has policies against discrimination, but no specific policies addressing transgender issues.

"If we get any student with a unique or specific need, we will accommodate the student the best we can within reason," he said. "I think what we already have in place is adequate."

Walker said Southwest does have some individual-user restrooms to use if necessary.

"I have been here for seven years, and this has never been an issue," he said. "We certainly are not in the business to make any kid feel bad, and we have to be sensitive to any student's needs within reason."

Exeter

At the Exeter school district, Superintendent Ernest Raney echoed Asbill's statement, that the purpose of a public school district is to provide a safe learning environment for all students.

"We have policies in place and do not discriminate," he said. "We want all students to feel loved and encouraged, and we want to treat all people with respect. These are challenges this school has never been faced with. We have anti-discrimination policies, and I think that's adequate."

Raney said if a student had a need for a different accommodation, the district would provide such accommodations.

"If we had someone wanting something different for whatever need, not just a transgender need, like if they do not feel comfortable going to the facility provided for all students, we will accommodate them with a private, unisex facility. We also have a nurse's office restroom a boy or girl could use."

While Raney said Exeter has not had any transgender issues arise, it did have to accommodate another special needs student in the past.

"We had a student with special needs, and that student was having a hard time because the pressure of the plumbing in the bathroom created a loud flush, which scared the student," he said. "So, we had to take that student to a more standard toilet that made less noise.

"Such as in that case, we will meet the needs of our children as each case presents itself."

Purdy

The Purdy school district is taking a cautious approach to the directive, and Superintendent Steven Chancellor said he believes Purdy does not have to change anything.

"First, we believe we are in compliance without any further action on our part," Chancellor said. "Secondly, I think patience is in order with this matter. If we get to a time and place where [the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] or our legal counsel instruct us differently, we will address it in a manner that reflects the beliefs and values of our community. Until then, we will remain steadfast on our primary focus -- teaching and learning."

Chancellor said the district does not have any specific policy regarding transgender students, and the district's anti-discrimination policy keeps it in compliance.

"We have chosen not to adopt anything speaking to or against [Obama's directive]," he said. "Schools historically are as accommodating to students as possible, and that's our goal. If we get a request and need to do something extra, within reason, we will do it. Relating to this specific issue, we have not had any formal requests."

Wheaton

Lance Massey, superintendent at the Wheaton school district, said Wheaton is still reviewing its policies and does not have one in place directly dealing with transgender students.

"We are looking at some potential options, but nothing we have asked the school board to approve yet," he said. "We don't have any gender-neutral bathrooms outside of a couple of faculty facilities. But, we do have a designated set of bathrooms where if a student feels uncomfortable, they can be made into gender-neutral bathrooms."

Athletics

Outside of regular facility use in schools, Asbill said there have also been some concerns over athletics. He said the district will adhere to the rules developed by the Missouri State High School Activities Association (MSHSAA), last updated in June 2012. The policy is based on the NCAA transgender policy from 2011. MSHSAA defines a transgender students as one "whose gender identity does not match the sex assigned to him or her at birth as reflected on the student's birth certificate or school records."

To participate in sex-separated interscholastic sports, MSHSAA requires a student to use hormone therapy consistent with current medical standards. A trans male (female to male) student may compete on a boys team but no longer on a girls team. A trans male on a girls team would force that team to be reclassified as a mixed team. Mixed teams are only eligible for boys championships.

A trans female (male to female) student being treated with testosterone suppression medication may continue to compete on a boys team but not on a girls team without changing the team to a mixed status. After one calendar year of documented testosterone-suppression treatment, the trans female will be considered female for competition.

Legislature

State Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, said changes to restroom policies could be costly, especially to cater to such a small percent of the total population.

"This could cause financial problems by having schools create multiple urinals or toilets to take care of less than 1 percent of the population," he said. "I think common sense regarding this issue has gone out the window. But, sometimes, you have to take the higher moral ground no matter what the federal government says.

"Financially, we aren't even fully funding the Foundation Formula, and we need to do that before we talk about retrofitting bathrooms. It bothers me that the feds, with issues like this and like with the EPA, are trying to control the states. I think if you ask parents who have a daughter, if put in this kind of situation, they would probably jerk their child out of school."

State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, said he does not believe restrooms at schools are in the jurisdiction of the federal government.

"This is something that should be left to up to local jurisdiction, and we are creating potential problems by demanding schools allow students to use bathrooms contradictory to their biological sex," he said. "I'm sure there are instances of transgender people using the bathrooms [opposite their biological sex] and you don't even know it, but I don't see the point on putting that level of discomfort on parents and other students.

"If I'm the father of a daughter, I wouldn't want the possibility of a boy, whether he identifies as one or not, sharing a bathroom with my daughter," he said. "But, if someone has the physical genitalia, if they change the physical sex of themselves, what bathroom that genitalia represents is where they should be going. I would imagine if that student is physically changed to the opposite sex from the standpoint of reproductive organs, it should be time to change bathrooms."

Fitzpatrick said he sees the issue as more involving locker rooms than restrooms, such as having a student who has not physically transitioned identify as the opposite sex and use that opposite-sex locker room and shower facilities.

"It's about the right to privacy and the safety of the students who use these facilities, and the rights and safety of the [trans] students themselves," he said. "This is also one of those things that I do not agree a child should be changing his or her sex as a minor, but that is another argument."

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has also weighed in on the issue, saying his office disagrees with the stance taken by the Obama administration. He is planning to file a friend of the court brief asking the Supreme Court to review the decision of the federal appeals court, which ruled in the case of G.G. vs Gloucester County School Board that Title IX requires public schools to allow transgender students to use the facility corresponding to the student's identity. The case was brought by a trans student in high school that argued requiring a student to use only the bathroom corresponding to biological sex was unconstitutional.

Koster's request is aimed at allowing local schools make their own decisions, instead of being forced to adhere to a federal mandate.

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