The local school board has approved further changes to the district’s proposed anti-discrimination policy for transgender and gender-expansive students in an attempt to balance students’ privacy rights with parents’ right to be informed.

The latest changes were based on advice from the district’s attorneys, who said Maine School Administrative District 75 would face a “clear risk” of lawsuits filed by parents or guardians if it didn’t update the draft policy to make it clearer that they must be informed of their child’s desire to be recognized as transgender unless doing so would likely result in harm to the student.

In a blow to social conservatives, the local school board’s Policy Committee had previously updated the draft policy to give schools more flexibility when deciding whether to notify parents or guardians that their child has asked to be recognized as trans at school.

But during a meeting on Thursday, Oct. 12, the school board partially restored stricter guidelines that had been included in an earlier draft, which said school officials must notify parents of such a request unless there is a strong indication it would lead to parental abuse or neglect of the student.

The latest version omits earlier language that would have required school officials to “take appropriate steps to protect the student, including ensuring appropriate state and local authorities are contacted,” if they deemed it unsafe to notify the student’s parents or guardians. It had added that students could “pause” their request to be recognized as trans if they didn’t want their parents or guardians to be informed.

Those provisions, no longer in the draft, had been endorsed by local conservatives such as Topsham resident Allen Sarvinas, the Maine director of Oregon-based advocacy group Parents’ Rights in Education, whose website says it opposes “radical gender ideology” and “anti-American, anti-white, and anti-capitalist sentiments” being taught in schools.

During its Oct. 12 meeting, the school board also rejected a proposal by board member Brandy Robertson, of Bowdoin, that would have added language specifying when and how parents would be notified of a student’s request to be recognized as trans.

Parents who spoke out at the school board’s recent meeting offered a range of opinions on the issue of parental notification, with some stressing its importance and others urging the board to approve the policy without the stricter notification rules. MSAD 75 covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.

Dueling drafts

The school board’s Policy Committee has been working for several months to craft what would be MSAD 75’s first-ever policy intended to protect transgender and gender-expansive students from bullying and discrimination.

But the committee has struggled to fine-tune the policy’s guidelines around parental notification and has been fluctuating between stricter and looser rules as it has sought to accommodate the conflicting concerns of local parents, as well as its attorneys.

The Policy Committee had replaced earlier versions of the proposed parental notification rules with looser language based on a sample policy on the Maine Department of Education’s LGBTQ+ school resources page, which states: “In the case of a student who has not yet informed their parent(s)/guardian(s) of their desire to assert a gender identity or expression different from the gender assigned at birth, the administrator or appropriately designated personnel shall first discuss parent/guardian involvement with the student. The parents should be included if they initiated the request or the student wishes for their inclusion.”

The committee had added, “Staff will use their best judgment as to the interests and safety of the child as to whether parents are included.”

But in an Oct. 11 memo to the board, its attorneys, Peter Lowe and Dan Stockford, of the Lewiston-based law firm Brann & Isaacson, said that language would make the proposed policy “significantly more vulnerable” to legal challenges.

“We believe that there is a clear risk the Policy with the proposed amendment could be found to be invalid on the basis of a judicial determination that it violates the fundamental rights of parents to make decisions regarding the care and control of their children,” the memo states.

Stockford attended the Oct. 12 school board meeting to assist the board in crafting amendments that would better protect the district from lawsuits. After a lengthy discussion, the board settled on new language that seeks to balance the rights of students and parents or guardians.

The new language states: “In the situation where there is no parent/guardian knowledge of a student’s request to create a transgender plan, the Superintendent shall be consulted and the matter resolved on a case-by-case basis. In resolving the matter, the Superintendent should evaluate whether there is evidence of substantial risk of harm to the student by notifying the parent(s)/guardian(s) of the student’s request. The student will be notified by the building administrator or student school counselor prior to contacting their parent(s)/guardian(s).”

Another board-approved addition states: “The Superintendent shall consider the position of the student, and may also obtain information from school staff or medical providers. In resolving the matter, the Superintendent should evaluate whether there is risk of harm to the student by notifying the parent(s)/guardian(s) of the student’s request to change their name and/or pronouns. Students should be informed that parents/guardians have a right to access all education records of their child and therefore the school cannot keep the change in name and/or gender a secret.”

All board members in attendance approved the new language except for Robertson, who had lobbied unsuccessfully for further changes. The school board could vote to adopt the policy as soon as its next scheduled meeting on Thursday, Nov. 16, at Mt. Ararat High School, 68 Eagles Way, Topsham.

Stockford, the attorney, said the new changes to the policy would make it far less susceptible to lawsuits over parental notification issues.

Parents speak out

The draft 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.

The draft is based largely on language recommended by the Augusta-based Maine School Management Association, or MSMA, and vetted for potential legal issues by MSMA’s law firm, Portland-based Drummond Woodsum. It also contains sections lifted from policies adopted by other Maine school districts, including Portland Public 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.

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 bathrooms and locker rooms that most closely align with their gender 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 published 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.

During the Oct. 12 board meeting’s public comment session, Bowdoinham parent Jeremy Cluchey acknowledged the difficulty the board faces as it seeks to satisfy conflicting interests.

“Balancing the rights of parents and students is no easy task,” Cluchey said, adding that the board should move quickly to adopt the policy. “I am someone who believes this policy is needed, sooner rather than later.”

Bowdoinham resident Craig Caffrey urged the school board to listen to its attorneys, and he noted that other district policies acknowledge the importance of parental consent in student activities and affairs.

“The district should never go against the lawyers’ recommendations,” Caffrey said. “Don’t set the district up for failure.”

Sarvinas, the parents’ rights advocate, chastised the school board for what he described as its failure to recognize the fundamental right of parents to know what their children are doing at school.

“I won’t stop doing whatever I can to disrupt you in trying to treat fundamental rights like ordinary rights,” he said.

MSAD 75 employee and Mental Health Committee member Corrie Calderwood spoke during the comment session to urge the board to pass a policy that respects the humanity of students.

“I’m speaking tonight to respectfully ask you to remember that the word ‘students’ in this policy refers to real people, young people who are complicated, unique, amazing individuals, and they are listening and paying attention to this policy and this work,” Calderwood said. “They want basic respect, the right to be called whatever name they would like by their peers, friends, coaches and teachers. They want to feel comfortable being in school and having access to the facilities they need. They want the freedom to express themselves however they choose, and however they feel comfortable. They want to feel safe at school being who they are, while being supported and welcomed by their community, their fellow students and (school) staff alike.”

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