Schools to vote on transgender policy

Public schools may have to start rethinking how they do some daily activities, like telling boys to line up on the left and girls on the right, in light of laws that prohibit schools from discriminating based on gender.

The discussion about this type of everyday classification came up recently when the Milford Board of Education had its first reading of a new transgender policy. The policy is meant to align school practice with state law that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. It is also meant to ensure all students feel safe and comfortable in school.

The board expects to vote on the policy later this month.

The policy was largely written by the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), with input from legal counsel, and addresses issues that may arise in school that cause a transgender person to feel uncomfortable — from bathroom use to dress code.

The new policy was driven by an executive order that Gov. Dannel Malloy signed last year protecting the rights of transgender students.

“Discrimination, harassment and bullying have no place in our classrooms or at our schools,” Malloy said in a press release issued last February. “Every child, no matter their gender identity or expression, should be treated equally and fairly in a safe, supportive environment. Connecticut will remain a state of inclusiveness because we strongly believe that diversity makes us stronger.”

In 2011, Malloy sponsored and signed into law legislation that incorporated gender identity and expression into the state’s anti-discrimination statutes  — Public Act 11-55. His executive order issued last year clarified that bathrooms and locker rooms in public schools and institutions of higher education are included in anti-discrimination laws. It also directed the State Department of Education to help guide school districts on policies that allow students access to school facilities in a manner consistent with a student’s gender identity or expression.

The policy that the Milford Board of Education read at its October meeting notes that federal and state law and district policy require that all programs and activities be free from discrimination based on “sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.”

It defines “gender identity” as people’s deeply held sense or psychological knowledge of their own gender, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth.

Transgender is defined as “people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with an assigned sex at birth.”

The policy states that a student, or the parent/guardian if the student is under age 18, has the right to ask the school to change the student’s name and gender on school records.

The policy also says a student has the right to be addressed by a name and pronoun that corresponds to the student’s gender identity.

“A court-ordered name or gender change is not required, and the student need not change his or her official records,” the policy states.

To the extent possible, schools should reduce or eliminate the practice of segregating students by gender, the policy states. “In situations where students are segregated by gender, such as for selected health education classes, students should be included in the group that corresponds to their gender identity.”

Students have access to the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, according to the policy, and if students need increased privacy, they will be able to use a single user restroom. “However, no student shall be required to use such a restroom because they are transgender or gender non-conforming.”

In early October, The New York Times reported federal moves to limit the definition of gender and therefore roll back some of the protections transgender people had been afforded under the Obama administration.

According to the Times, the Trump administration “is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.”

The Hartford Courant reported: “Details are hard to come by and the administration has declined to comment. But the Department of Health and Human Services memo outlines a new interpretation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded schools. Under the proposal, gender would be ‘as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with’.”

Milford School Superintendent Dr. Anna Cutaia, responding to a question from board member Warren Pawlowski about those discussions on the federal level, said that “until the politicians take action, we would be obligated to fulfill the Public Act.”

More important, she said, there are students in the school district today who are transgender. “My concern is that we have practices and policies that help all of our kids feel safe first, and then we’ll let the federal government argue over what they are going to recognize or not,” Cutaia said.

She said there is evidence that failing to reach and support transgender students can result in significant harm to them.

“In a school system, it is our job to ensure safe, nurturing and equal education for all students, so that requires us to take on a systems based approach,” she said.

She said the policy is a proactive way of addressing concerns that may arise.

The board members raised several points they thought should be clarified in the policy, and Cutaia said she would follow up on those with counsel.

The board talked a bit about how a transgender student would switch from using one restroom to another. Cutaia said that step in the transition would be at the discretion of the student, working closely with family and school staff in what she said would be an involved process.

“These are big scary steps sometimes,” Cutaia said.

Annaliese Spaziano, instructional supervisor of student development, said school officials work with families and students in cases where a student identifies as transgender. “It’s a process,” she said. “It doesn’t just happen overnight.”

Board member Jennifer Federico asked if there will be a similar policy that applies to staff and faculty. Cutaia said that is an interesting point but it has not been discussed yet.