Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2018

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School transgender policy gets people talking

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L.E. Baskow

Members of the community attend public comment sessions on gender diversity policy at the Clark County School District.

Noa Ortega, 15, changed in a bathroom because he couldn’t use the locker room. Sans Ammons, 17, once had to show his student identification to a school security guard before entering the boys’ bathroom.

Transgender students from schools across the valley have described their treatment as a game of roulette.

“It can be rough trying to figure out what teacher or school might be more accepting,” said a 17-year-old student known as Shack. “(If there was a policy for gender-diverse students) I think I’d be more comfortable being out.”

The Clark County School District recently staged five days of public comment, gathering people from across the city to meet at various schools. The goal was to hear from the community and collect input on a proposed policy that deals with gender-diverse students.

In an angst-filled auditorium packed to capacity on most days, the public engaged in a contentious fight.

And amid the public comment and difference of opinions are the stories of trans students and their outcry for protection.

“I definitely think people have the wrong idea about what this is all about,” Shack said. “In their worry and fear for themselves and their children, they don’t consider how gender-diverse students are heavily affected by this every day.”

During the last legislative session, the state passed Senate Bill 225, an anti-bullying law that would require policy and training for school personnel to help them better understand gender-diverse students.

On the heels of the bill’s approval, CCSD Trustee Carolyn Edwards formed a group to discuss developing a written policy for the district to better serve students. The group consisted of 45 community members from groups such as Gender Justice Nevada, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, which advocated for trans-inclusive policies, as well as Power 2 Parent, which opposed instituting such policies.

The group reviewed guidelines from Washoe County, Los Angeles, New York City and Minnesota. It read material from various standpoints, including one from the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After six meetings and 13 hours, the group decided on a policy that could include: a cohesive process allowing students to change names on unofficial documents such as name badges and yearbook photos, how to protect the privacy of gender-diverse students, allowing students to use public accommodations or join extracurricular activities matching the gender with which they identify, and changing the dress code standards to be sure it is inclusive.

“In the end, all the people in our group, regardless of their beliefs, agree that every child in Clark County deserves a safe and respectful learning environment,” said Kirsten Searer, chief communications officer with the district.

The public comment period was the next step before presenting trustees recommendations in January (people also could submit input online).

The meetings gathered parents, students, teachers, religious figures and community interest groups.

Karen England, a lobbyist with Capitol Resource Institute, said such a policy would be unnecessary because there already are anti-bullying guidelines.

“Someone mentioned you guys don’t have guidelines, but that’s totally untrue,” England said. “It says you can’t harass based on gender and gender identity. If you’re not enforcing the policy, you need to do a better job, not create another policy.”

Others said the policy would pull focus from improving education.

Many who opposed the policy agreed that no person should be bullied or experience harassment. Their statements typically came with a “but.”

“But this opens the door to sexual predators,” one parent said. “But this infringes on my freedom of speech and religion,” said another.

Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, disagreed with the free speech argument.

“It isn’t a credible argument,” he said. “You don’t get to run around misgendering someone and saying the wrong pronoun. That’s harassment.”

Some felt that statements such as “you go against biological truth,” “trans people go against moral values” or “you are an ideology” were examples of why policies expanding protections for gender-diverse students were needed.

“Yes, I know it won’t end bullying,” Ortega said. “It will build a better safety net for students.”

Jane Heenan, executive director of Gender Justice Nevada, wanted the meetings to give more face time for community members to hear from transgender students.

“So we can figure out why they feel we are so scary and why they hate us,” Heenan said.

This isn’t the first school district to undergo policy changes. Brooke Maylath, executive director of the Reno-based Transgender Alliance Group, heard similar arguments in 2015 from Washoe County parents before the school district implemented its gender-diverse guidelines.

In the end, Maylath said policies should protect students’ needs first and foremost.

“These are the customers of the school,” Maylath said. “That is who the school should be serving.”