In a blow to social conservatives, the local school board’s Policy Committee has updated its proposed anti-discrimination policy for transgender and gender-expansive students to give schools more flexibility when deciding whether to notify parents or guardians that their child has asked to be recognized as trans.

Strict guidelines had been added to an earlier draft that 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. That language had been added during a Sept. 6 Policy Committee meeting in response to legal advice from the district’s attorney.

The committee’s draft had gone even further by requiring 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, now removed from the draft, had been endorsed by local conservatives such as the Maine representative 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.

The committee has since replaced the earlier provisions with looser language taken from 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. Staff will use their best judgment as to the interests and safety of the child as to whether parents are included.”

Harpswell resident Ryan Larsen, a member of the Maine School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors and chair of the board’s Policy Committee, said via email that the latest change was made at the request of members of the district’s Mental Health Committee and a member of the Policy Committee.

Larsen said the change was approved by the Policy Committee on Thursday, Sept. 28, in response to “concerns about clarity of wording as well as legality with regards to the Maine Human Rights Act.” The decision drew harsh criticism from several parents who attended the Sept. 28 committee and school board meetings, while others expressed strong support.

The revised draft has yet to be voted on by the full MSAD 75 school board. It is expected to be on the agenda for the board’s next scheduled meeting at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 12, at Mt. Ararat High School, 68 Eagles Way, Topsham. The district covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.

Policy nears adoption

After months of discussion and debate, MSAD 75’s Policy Committee has settled on proposed language for what would be the district’s first-ever policy intended to protect transgender and gender-expansive students from bullying and discrimination.

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 school board had been expected to give the draft policy a first read at its Sept. 28 meeting, but that action was postponed to give board members more time to consider the latest changes.

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.

Larsen, the Policy Committee chair, said the committee is eager to move forward with the proposed anti-discrimination policy.

“The Policy Committee is looking forward to bringing this policy, in its finalized form, to the full board for review, discussion, and potential adoption so we can ensure our staff and administration (have) the guidance they need and our students and families have the support they deserve,” he said.

Change draws mixed reaction

Several audience members spoke out about the changes — and the draft policy itself — at the Sept. 28 school board meeting.

During the meeting’s public comment session, Harpswell resident Tracy Johnson-Colby said she and other members of the public were in favor of the previous wording and felt “blindsided” by the eleventh-hour change regarding parental notification.

She said kids need parents to set boundaries for them, and the earlier wording had correctly placed the responsibility on parents to make important decisions for their kids.

“I just think it’s really important that parents are raising their kids,” Johnson-Colby said, her comments drawing loud applause.

Topsham resident Andrea LeBlanc agreed, saying she respects the district’s faculty and staff but doesn’t understand why they would want to withhold any information about a student from their parents or guardians.

“I have a transgender niece and I love her very much, but I don’t believe in going behind the parent’s back,” LeBlanc told the school board.

But Harpswell resident Susan Horowitz defended the changes and said she didn’t understand why other community members were so worried about it.

“Some kids do not feel safe sharing with their parents,” Horowitz said. “If they feel safe someplace else (such as at school), let’s give them that grace. Let’s keep them alive. Let’s help them to be functioning, productive members of our society.”

Topsham resident Tracy Gregoire told the board she has a friend who pulled her transgender child out of the local high school because she was worried the child would take their own life. She said the district’s proposed anti-discrimination policy is needed, even if it makes some parents uncomfortable.

“Remember when there was (racial) segregation? People were not only uncomfortable but very angry and violent,” Gregoire said. “But desegregation was the right thing to do — it was just, it was fair, and it was way past time.”

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