PITTSFIELD — City education policymakers hope to expand recent federal guidance on the civil rights of transgender students in public schools to "ensure that all students have the opportunity to express themselves and live authentically as the gender with which they identify."
Kelly Shuff-Heck, a clinician who works in the schools on gender issues, last week presented a proposed policy "supporting gender diverse and transgender students" to the district policy subcommittee. The proposal will go before the full School Committee within several weeks.
The relevant student population in city schools is larger than anyone — parents, teachers, or students — think, according to Shuff-Heck. She also said the policy itself is as much for adults as for students, who often demonstrate a much better ability to take the issues at hand in stride.
"Our students are in all phases of [gender identity] transition, and what we like to do, clinically, with gender diverse students is ask them how far they need to go to feel comfortable with themselves," Shuff-Heck said.
The policy seeks to foster a "safe, welcoming" environment that is "free from stigma and discrimination for all students." Its regulations and prescriptions cover broad bases, including use of gender-segregated facilities like bathrooms and locker rooms — where a national debate has lately broke out.
The proposed PPS policy states that students "shall have access to facilities that correspond with their gender identity."
"A student who asserts his or her identity — we honor that," Shuff-Heck said. "If Bobby says, 'I'm Barbara; I'm a girl,' and Barbara wants to use the ladies locker room, Barbara gets to use the ladies locker room."
Any student uncomfortable with the arrangement — including a gender diverse or transgender student — should have access to a gender-neutral bathroom, according to the policy.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said the proposal carries forward the spirit of what's already happening in city schools.
"We don't broadcast it, because it's young people's lives and their business, but this policy is something that Pittsfield Public Schools for years have been working on," McCandless said. "Not on a policy level, but on a practice level and a personal level — to make sure that every child that attends our schools is free to be themselves, to be who they want to be ridicule-free, worry-free, bullying-free and comfortable."
He added, "Although this seems to be a 'big deal' right now, in my short tenure here going back three years, we've dealt appropriately, sensitively and fairly with [gender identity issues] in probably 20 to 30 instances."
In May, the Obama administration released a directive affirming the rights of transgender public school students to use the bathroom of their choice. Obama has since said the directive follows established civil rights law and is in the best interests of children.
Research has shown transgender and gender diverse people exhibit higher incidences of suicide and substance abuse if they face rejection from family and authority figures early in life.
"As many supportive adults as we can have along these students' journey, that's what we're going to aim for," Shuff-Heck said.
Within weeks of Obama's directive, officials from 11 states — Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Wisconsin and others — filed lawsuit "testing both the scope of federal anti-discrimination law and the government's interpretation of it," reported The New York Times.
Meanwhile, hundreds of parents marched on a school board meeting in Georgia insisting on traditional, anatomical standards defining sex, and Obama's directive was put on hold even in districts in socially liberal states like New York.
Shuff-Heck said the broader intent of the local policy is to break down gender binaries so nobody feels excluded.
"I do think this is going to be ongoing in the classrooms," Shuff-Heck said. "There will be individual conversations and school-wide conversations we need to have. There will be interventions that teachers and staff are going to have to really think about to get away from the really binary roles. For example, 'boys line up here, girls line up over here.' It's going to be a dramatic paradigm shift, I think, that we're going to be encouraging. It's going to be on-going for a while."
She added, "I don't think we need to be in preschools and kindergartens saying, 'Here's what transgender means,'" Shuff-Heck said. "But I do think we need to make it an open and affirming place where little boys can grow up to be ballerinas and little girls can grow up to be president. We need to start that at an early age."
"We're all going to slip and slide around this, and it's going to be a learned behavior," School Committee member Cynthia Taylor said.
Shuff-Heck replied, "In my experience with transgender folks who are using a different pronoun, as long as it's respectful and you say, 'Oh, I've known you for 14 years as Bobby, I'm really sorry Barbara.' If it's an honest mistake, folks are still really happy that your trying."
Much more than a bathroom policy alone, the policy would formalize already practiced acts like the changing of names on school records and diplomas, training and professional development, athletics, how to address the media about a particular student's gender transition and more.
McCandless said that when students approach staff about a change in gender identity, the district prefers to involve parents as soon as possible. Most times the family already "has a hunch" and is supportive, according to McCandless.
The policy does include provisions saying staff can question a student's gender assertion if they have significant reason to believe it is "being made for an improper purpose."
Shuff-Heck said this language was included almost as a formality, as it's almost unthinkable that a male student would go through a public, social transition of this sort in order to facilitate peeping in rest rooms or greater success on a girls' sports team.
Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.