School board examines transgender rights

During the Tuesday, May 17 Madison County School Board meeting, Doug Brown, Superintendent of Schools, informed the board that he received a letter from the United States Department of Justice and the Department of Education regarding the issue of transgender students. The letter outlined the rights of a transgender student and warned that if schools do not comply with protecting these rights, they can be stripped of their funding. The letter came to form after both departments received “an increasing number of questions from parents, teachers, principals, and school superintendents about civil rights protections for transgender students.”

The letter states that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits “sex discrimination in educational programs and activities operated by recipients of federal financial assistance.” The letter summed up schools’ obligations regarding transgender students. Accompanying the letter was a separate document that contained frequently asked questions about transgender students and schools' policies when dealing with these students. The document also provided examples of policies and practices for supporting transgender students; these examples were taken from school districts, state education agencies, and the high school athletics associations around the country that have been adopted to ensure that transgender students are able to learn in a nondiscriminatory school environment.

Brown emphasized that, in the past, there have been transgender students within the schools of Madison County. Brown stated that this is a complex issue with many sides but reminded the board to keep the safety and interest of all of the students in mind.

Delving into the national “transgender bathroom” debate, Brown addressed the situation and stated that males will have male bathrooms, and females will have female bathrooms, but a transgender student has the option to use a private facility; he reminisced, saying that there have been transgender students at the schools who were just fine with using their own private facility. If the transgender student does not want to use the voluntary private facility, the school will have more discussion with the student and their family. If harassment based on gender identity takes place, according to the guideline, the school must take prompt action to end the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects. Brown emphasized that the Madison County School District will do just that if need be.

Brown also expressed that some districts across the nation have provided students increased privacy by making adjustments to sex-segregated facilities or providing all students with access to alternative facilities. With overnight trips, Brown explained that, according to the letter released by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, the student must have access to a room consistent with their gender identity but may not be forced to stay in their own room unless they specifically ask to be put in one.

In regards to athletic activities, the letter states “Title IX regulations permit a school to operate or sponsor sex-segregated athletic teams when selection for such team is based upon competitive skill or when the activity involved is a contact sport.” The letter went on to say that “a school may not, however, adopt or adhere to requirements that rely on overly broad generalizations or stereotypes about the differences between transgender students and other students of the same sex or others' discomfort with transgender students.” Transgender students can participate in athletics consistent with their gender identity.

After board members began to bring up the bathroom issue again, Brown quickly reminded them that this issue was not about bathrooms, but about the rights and safety of each and every student, even if they are transgender.

“This is the same thing with integration,” said VeEtta Hagan. “Equal rights for everyone.”

Despite Brown's point that this discussion had nothing to do with the bathroom debate that is taking the nation by storm; Kenny Hall still had some concerns. “What if a young man wakes up one day and thinks he's a girl suddenly and decides 'I want to go into the girls' bathroom'?” asked Hall.

Brown informed Hall that transgender students do not just transition overnight; this is a process that takes years. Additionally,the parent/guardian of students who decide they want to become transgender will have to inform the office of their new identity so the information is on record. Brown also explained that when a student becomes transgender, school staff members and other students are required to call them by their new name and use the proper pronouns that their new gender coincides with. The student's birth name or sex assigned at birth must not be released non-consensually, according to the letter, as this could be harmful or invasive to the privacy of the transgender student and may also violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Bart Alford was concerned about how the school identifies transgender students. “Is this a matter of surgery?” asked Alford.

“No,” said Brown. “[The student] may or may not have surgery. This is about how they feel on the inside. This is about identity.”

After much discussion, the board agreed that the best approach to handle transgender students was to talk with the student and handle the situations on a case-by-case basis, as each student and situation is different.

“Further information, guidance, and directives [for transgender students] are likely in the relatively near future,” said Brown in a written statement. “The district will work closely to the information and adjust accordingly. Madison County is a wonderful place to live, and work, and attend school. The community has worked through difficult issues in the past and can work through this issue in ways that respect both individual and corporal rights.”

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