After several months of discussion and debate, the local school board has unanimously approved its first-ever policy intended to protect transgender and gender-expansive students from bullying and discrimination.
The policy’s stated purpose is to guide Maine School Administrative District 75 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. MSAD 75 covers Harpswell, Topsham, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.
The policy’s passage came after much heated debate and several amendments, particularly around students’ privacy rights and parents’ right to be informed. Throughout its development, the draft policy alternated between versions emphasizing different priorities. The final version seeks to balance the two competing concerns.
Set to take effect Feb. 2, the policy is based largely on language recommended by the Augusta-based Maine School Management Association, or MSMA. It also contains a section lifted from Portland Public Schools’ policy, as well as original language developed by the MSAD 75 school board with input from its legal counsel.
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.
The school board approved the final policy with little discussion at its meeting on Thursday, Nov. 16. A few minor amendments to the policy were approved. The board had given the policy a first reading at its Oct. 12 meeting, during which more substantive changes had been made.
Following the policy’s approval, school board Chair Hutson Hayward, of Bowdoinham, praised the board’s Policy Committee and its current and former leaders, Ryan Larsen, of Harpswell, and Brandy Robertson, of Bowdoin, for seeing the hotly debated policy through to its passage. Within the district, the document is referred to as “Policy ACAAA,” according to a letter-based system used to categorize its various administrative policies.
“I am grateful that we have a policy that advises students, the families of students, and district staff on how to navigate the intensely personal matter of expressing a transgender or gender-expansive identity at school,” Hayward said Friday, Nov. 17, via email. “The Board is dedicated to providing the students of our district a high-quality education in a safe and enriching learning environment, and this policy will play an important role in that goal.”
Long road to passage
There is no state or federal requirement that school districts adopt a written policy regarding trans students. Maine law already prohibits school sports teams from denying trans athletes the right to participate.
Still, other districts in Maine have adopted their own policies in recent years with help from MSMA, a statewide, nonprofit federation of local school boards and superintendents.
For the most part, MSAD 75’s new 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, locker rooms and other facilities that most closely align with their gender identity.
Throughout its development, the policy had been revised several times to address competing arguments regarding students’ privacy rights and parents’ or guardians’ right to be informed of their child’s actions and decisions.
Some board members and parents had argued that the policy should always require parents or guardians to be notified of their child’s request to be recognized as transgender, while others sought to protect students’ privacy in cases where they objected to their parents being notified.
The final policy seeks to balance those concerns by emphasizing the need to evaluate each student’s situation on a case-by-case basis, and to first determine whether notifying parents would likely result in parental abuse or neglect of the student.
“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,” the policy states. “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.”
The latest changes were based on advice from the district’s attorneys, who said MSAD 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 do would likely result in harm to the student.
The 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 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 final 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.
During its Oct. 12 meeting, the school board also rejected a proposal that would have added language specifying when and how parents would be notified of a student’s request to be recognized as trans.
Public reaction mixed
Parents and community members expressed a mix of opinions about the final policy during the Nov. 16 school board meeting’s public comment session.
Tracy Johnson-Colby, of Harpswell, criticized the policy as catering to a “social trend” and said it will create legal liabilities for the school district.
“I foresee this policy being played out in a courtroom, on a case-by-case basis, to the expense and detriment of all those involved, including the taxpayers,” Johnson-Colby said.
Brian Roy, of Bowdoin, objected to the policy on religious grounds, saying, “a person’s DNA is given to us by God.”
“The very idea that adults are considering provisions for a child to self-assign a gender (that) is inconsistent with their sex assigned at birth is absurd,” Roy told the school board.
But others defended the policy, including Jim Byrne, of Topsham, who praised its nuance and flexibility in allowing students to work with trusted school personnel on how to discuss sensitive matters such as gender identity with their family members.
“I certainly support this policy,” Byrne said. “I keep hearing a lot of negative things about it, but I think this is a very positive thing.”
Harpswell resident Gail Kass also spoke in favor of the policy, noting that as a lesbian daughter of Nazi concentration camp survivors, she is keenly aware of the ways sex and gender differences have been exploited in the past to persecute people.
“I can’t tell you enough how important it is that you see the safety of these children that are in your hands, regardless of their parents’ upbringing or their parents’ beliefs, they need to belong to society, the world that is here now,” Kass said. “That means they need to be accepted into the community and loved for their differences.”
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