Lenox School Committee weighs policy to protect transgender students

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LENOX — The School Committee is considering whether to adopt a specific policy for the district that would extend and enhance existing state laws protecting students from harassment based on gender and sexual orientation.

It also would extend existing anti-bullying policies, School Superintendent Timothy Lee explained during a recent wide-ranging, six-hour committee retreat held at Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort, "but it's adding a proactive statement to the body of our policies, giving protection to students who are gender non-conforming and transgender."

The School Committee will revisit the proposed policy at its Sept. 28 meeting.

During a preliminary discussion, Lee said the policy proposal is based on guidelines from an advocacy group, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

He described the Lenox policy, if adopted, as perhaps the first in a Berkshire County school district, adding that Northampton is the only school system he knows of that has implemented a comparable proposal.

"We have students who would identify themselves as either transgender or gender non-conforming," Lee noted, "and I suspect there are more who have not identified themselves that way and would still benefit from a section of a policy such as this."

"It's a kind of a new area for us," he said, "but I'd like to see if we can get a policy such as this on our books."

In a followup interview, the superintendent acknowledged that the policy "might be redundant and duplicate some of the intentions of our already inclusive state laws."

But, he said, "the new and different accommodations we need to make to prevent harassment and bullying based on gender identity need to be spelled out."

As an example, he suggested that if a student who is assigned male at birth but identifies as female wishes to use a female or unisex restroom, "that's an accommodation we would make, depending on what's comfortable and non-stigmatizing."

School Committee member Michael Moran suggested that "this may be best practice, but it doesn't come naturally to everyone. I think we need to figure out how to communicate potentially in groups or one-on-one. Some people will struggle with this, no doubt."

According to member Veronica Fenton, "I think it's hard for all of us; even if we're very open, to a variety of lifestyles, it does require a lot of stepping back from stereotypes in order to understand things better."

"Strange to say, we're more used to the gay and lesbian discussion than we are to any type of transgender discussion," she added. "It's complicated, but I think we need to have a policy in place focused more on inclusion and acceptance, less than on exclusion and making people feel worse."

Protecting transgendered people's "right to be private about having a different gender identity" is crucial, committee member Neal Maxymillian said. As potential impediments to privacy, he pointed out, would be the use of a women's room by a male identifying as female.

"This document prevents the right to do that, so it's a 'Catch-22,' " he added, citing locker rooms as another example.

Lee pointed out that the school has two private-use restrooms.

"The onus falls on the school district to accommodate the student in a way that's going to maintain their confidentiality and also make them comfortable in the setting," said Lee. "The key focus of a policy like this is to create an environment where the student feels safe and feels like they have a sense of belonging in our schools, even with a diverse identity. It's potentially really complicated and we could run into a lot of different responses by different administrators and teachers."

"What this policy does for us," he added, "is if we do find ourselves in that position, it would cue us as administrators and faculty members to wait a second, think about what might be going on, perhaps dig a little deeper and see if we can respond in such a way that's going to respect the student's wishes."

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"It puts us on notice a little more as faculty and staff to be ready to be accepting," Lee said. "We're trying our best to create an environment that's free of stigmatization, where a student can feel a sense of belonging."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

Proposed transgender policy ...

Here are some key sections of the policy on transgender and gender non-conforming students under consideration by the School Committee:

• The purpose of this policy is: (1) to foster an educational environment that is safe and free from discrimination for all students, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression, and (2) to facilitate compliance with local, state and federal laws concerning bullying, harassment and discrimination.

• This policy should be interpreted consistent with the goals of reducing the stigmatization of and improving the educational integration of transgender and gender nonconforming students, maintaining the privacy of all students, and fostering cultural competence and professional development for school staff. Furthermore, this policy will support healthy communication between educators and parents/guardians to further the successful educational development and well being of every student.

• This policy covers conduct that takes place in the school, on school property, at school sponsored functions and activities, on school buses or vehicles and at bus stops. This policy also pertains to usage of electronic technology and electronic communication that occurs in the school, on school property, at school sponsored functions and activities, on school buses or vehicles and at bus stops, and on school computers, networks, forums, and mailing lists. This policy applies to the entire school community, including educators, school and district staff, students, parents, and volunteers.

• Discrimination, bullying, and harassment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression shall be prohibited within the school district. It is the responsibility of each school and the district and all staff to ensure that all students, including transgender and gender nonconforming students, have a safe school environment.

• The scope of this responsibility includes ensuring that any incident of discrimination, harassment, or bullying is given immediate attention, including investigating the incident, taking age and developmentally appropriate corrective action, and providing students and staff with appropriate resources. Complaints alleging discrimination or harassment based on a person's actual or perceived gender identity or expression are to be taken seriously and handled in the same manner as other discrimination, bullying, or harassment complaints.

• All persons, including students, have a right to privacy, and this includes the right to keep one's transgender status private at school. Information about a student's transgender status, legal name, or gender assigned at birth also may constitute confidential medical information. Disclosing this information to other students, their parents, or other third parties may violate privacy laws, such as the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

• The district shall ensure that all medical information relating to transgender and gender nonconforming students shall be kept confidential in accordance with applicable state, local and federal privacy laws. School staff shall not disclose information that may reveal a student's transgender status to others, including parents and other school staff, unless legally required to do so or unless the student has authorized such disclosure.

• Transgender and gender nonconforming students have the right to discuss and express their gender identity and expression openly and to decide when, with whom, and how much to share private information. The fact that a student chooses to disclose his or her transgender status to staff or other students does not authorize school staff to disclose other medical information about the student. When contacting the parent or guardian of a transgender student, school staff should use the student's legal name and the pronoun corresponding to the student's gender assigned at birth unless the student, parent, or guardian has specified otherwise.

• When communicating to the media or community about issues related to gender identity, the school or District shall have a single spokesperson to address the issue. Rather than directly commenting on the issue, other District and school staff shall direct parents and the media to the designated spokesperson. Protecting the privacy of transgender and gender nonconforming students must be a top priority for the spokesperson and all staff, and all medical information shall be kept strictly confidential. Violating confidentiality of this information is a violation of this policy and may be a violation of local, state or federal privacy laws.

• With respect to all restrooms, locker rooms or changing facilities, students shall have access to facilities that correspond to their gender identity. Schools may maintain separate restroom, locker room or changing facilities for male and female students, provided that they allow students to access them based on their gender identity.

• In any gender segregated facility, any student who is uncomfortable using a shared facility, regardless of the reason, shall, upon the student's request, be provided with a safe and non stigmatizing alternative. This may include, for example, addition of a privacy partition or curtain, provision to use a nearby private restroom or office, or a separate changing schedule. However, requiring a transgender or gender nonconforming student to use a separate, nonintegrated space threatens to publicly identify and marginalize the student as transgender and should not be done unless requested by a student. Under no circumstances may students be required to use sex segregated facilities that are inconsistent with their gender identity.

• Where available, schools are encouraged to designate facilities designed for use by one person at a time as accessible to all students regardless of gender, and to incorporate such single user facilities into new construction or renovation. However, under no circumstances may a student be required to use such facilities because they are transgender or gender nonconforming.

• All students shall be permitted to participate in physical education classes and intramural sports in a manner consistent with their gender identity. Furthermore, [unless precluded by state interscholastic association policies,] all students shall be permitted to participate in interscholastic athletics in a manner consistent with their gender identity.

• Schools may enforce dress codes pursuant to district policy. Students shall have the right to dress in accordance with their gender identity, within the constraints of the dress codes adopted by the school. School staff shall not enforce a school's dress code more strictly against transgender and gender nonconforming students than other students.


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