The local school board is nearing adoption of its first-ever policy intended to foster a safe and accommodating environment for transgender and gender-expansive students.

After months of discussion and debate, the Policy Committee of the Maine School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors has proposed language that hews closely to what has been recommended by the Augusta-based Maine School Management Association, or MSMA, and vetted for legal issues by MSMA’s law firm, Portland-based Drummond Woodsum.

But the local district’s committee has proposed a handful of changes, based in part on other Maine school district policies, including the addition of some language that a leading Maine LGBTQ+ rights advocate called outdated and unnecessary.

The committee also removed a line from the MSMA sample policy that says a medical diagnosis should not be required to recognize a student’s gender identity.

The district’s draft policy, which was still undergoing legal review as of mid-August, also adds a line emphasizing that the policy’s intent is “not to withhold information from parents/guardians, but to protect the privacy of students.”

Policy’s purpose

The policy’s stated purpose is to guide school faculty and staff in their efforts to “foster a learning environment that is safe and free from discrimination, harassment and bullying,” and “assist in the educational and social integration of transgender and gender expansive students” in local schools.

There is no state or federal requirement that school districts adopt a written policy regarding trans students. Rules around participation in interscholastic sports and related issues are handled at the statewide level by the Maine Principals’ Association.

Still, other districts in Maine have been adopting their own policies in recent years with help from MSMA, a statewide, nonprofit federation of local school boards and superintendents. The MSAD 75 policy would apply to public schools in Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham if the school board approves it.

For the most part, MSAD 75’s draft policy mirrors the one recommended by MSMA. It defines relevant terms and provides a framework for how to accommodate students who assert a different gender identity from the one they were assigned at birth.

For example, the policy advises school personnel on setting up a meeting with the student and, if necessary, developing a plan that meets their particular circumstances and needs. It says school personnel should address trans students by their preferred name and pronouns, and allow them to use the restrooms and locker rooms that most closely align with their gender identity.

It also covers how to accommodate trans students with special needs, as well as those who wish to keep their gender identity or other personal information confidential. In cases where the student’s parents are unaware, it appears to offer school officials flexibility to assess the situation and act accordingly, without explicitly telling them what to do.

“In the case of a student who has not yet informed their parent(s)/guardian(s), the administrator should first discuss parent/guardian involvement with the student to avoid inadvertently putting the student at risk by contacting their parent(s)/guardian(s),” it says. “The student will be notified by the administrator prior to contacting their parent(s)/guardian(s).”

The draft policy notes that if a student requests a name change on their official school records, there would be no way for the district to keep that information secret from their parents or guardians.

Some language questioned

Despite being mostly identical to the state organization’s sample policy, the MSAD 75 draft adds a section that could throw up hurdles for a student who seeks to have their gender identity recognized if school officials decide the student is asserting that identity “for an improper purpose.”

The notion of an “improper purpose” for trans identities isn’t mentioned in MSMA’s sample policy. A leading LGBTQ+ rights advocate in Maine called the language “a little outdated” and said it was included in the MSMA sample policy several years ago but has since been removed.

Gia Drew, executive director of EqualityMaine and a former longtime K-12 teacher and coach, explained that such language was once included to quell concerns about students pretending to be another gender, such as a hypothetical male student seeking access to the girls bathroom or locker room.

“We don’t see this happening,” Drew said. “We don’t see people pretending to be trans.”

School board Chair and Policy Committee member Hutson Hayward, of Bowdoinham, said via email that the “improper purpose” language was added by the committee following a review of other districts’ trans student policies. That specific language was copied from Portland Public Schools’ policy, he said.

“When work on (the policy) began, then-Superintendent Steve Connolly collected many different Maine school district policies addressing transgender and gender expansive students, in addition to the MSMA sample (policy),” Hayward said. “Subsequent meetings saw the Policy Committee discuss these various policies in the development of one for our own district, building on the foundation of the MSMA sample.”

The added language doesn’t explain what an “improper purpose” is, nor does it provide any examples. However, it raises the possibility of additional documentation requirements not recommended by MSMA.

“If an educational institution has a credible and objective reason to believe that a transgender or gender expansive student’s gender identity is being asserted for an improper purpose, the institution may request additional evidence supporting the student’s stated gender identity,” the MSAD 75 policy draft says.

The additional evidence could include a note from a doctor, nurse, psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker, in addition to certain documents such as a passport, family photos or a written statement from a parent or guardian, it says. The draft policy doesn’t explain how photos or a passport might be useful.

Drew, the LGBTQ+ rights advocate, noted that cisgender students — those whose gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth — are never required to prove their gender identity with medical records or testimonials.

“No one else has to prove who they are, unless they’re trans,” she said. “This just goes back to a long history of not trusting trans people.”

The medical community generally warns against pathologizing trans identities or creating an environment where trans students feel they must prove their identity. While being transgender was regarded as a psychological disorder as recently as 10 years ago, it is now widely viewed by medical professionals as a natural variation of human diversity, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

According to the American Medical Association, a landmark 2018 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that transgender youth who were allowed to use accurate names and pronouns experienced 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34% drop in reported suicidal thoughts and a 65% decrease in suicide attempts.

Compromise by omission

The MSAD 75 draft also diverges from the MSMA sample policy by removing a line that says schools shouldn’t ask for medical proof of a student’s gender identity.

“This involves more than a casual declaration of gender identity or expression, but it does not require a medical diagnosis,” the MSMA sample policy says, with “This” referring to the district’s recognition of a student’s trans identity.

That line isn’t included in the MSAD 75 draft policy. The omission is largely the result of a compromise among current and former district Policy Committee members. Former school board member Eric Lusk, of Harpswell, had argued in a May 26 meeting that the district policy should explicitly require a medical diagnosis to recognize a student’s trans identity.

“We are within our rights to require a medical diagnosis,” Lusk said at the time. “Why are we waiving our rights?”

But others questioned the legality of such a requirement and referenced the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s landmark 2014 ruling that the Orono School District had discriminated against trans student Nicole Maines in violation of the Maine Human Rights Act by requiring her to use a staff bathroom instead of the girls room. Maines was ultimately awarded $75,000 in damages.

In the same May 26 Policy Committee meeting, Hayward argued against including any medical diagnosis requirement and said he favored going with the state organization’s recommended language.

“I personally would feel comfortable just using the MSMA stuff,” he said at the time.

In the end, the committee did not add an explicit requirement but still deleted the line saying a medical diagnosis should not be required.

On Aug. 15, Hayward said via email that the district’s policy draft has been sent to its legal counsel for review, while also being presented by interim Superintendent Heidi O’Leary to the district Principals’ Council for review and feedback.

“Once those steps are done, the Policy Committee will add (the draft policy) to the agenda for their next meeting,” Hayward said.

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