District vows equal access for transgender students

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District vows equal access for transgender students

10:15 p.m. PDT May 13, 2016

In response to recently released federal guidelines to protect transgender students’ rights, the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon does not anticipate significant changes, saying they “already ensure equal access for transgender students.”

Salem-Keizer has an “equal education opportunity” policy that addresses the protected classes, including gender and sexual orientation.

According to the district’s policy, “No student enrolled in the district or employed by the district shall be excluded in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in a district education program, activity or service.”

Jay Remy, a spokesperson for the district, said, “We have been accommodating transgender students for years and ensuring their rights to access public education equally.

“We have always been able to work it out so that the transgender student feels comfortable and is able to use the facilities that they feel most comfortable with.”

He said the Salem-Keizer School District’s educational access policy is “clear that we will do everything in our power to make all students feel safe and welcome regardless of gender identification or other factors.”

Remy said some individual schools have had to deal with issues regarding access to things like bathrooms and locker rooms, but no issues have reached the district level and all have been resolved in accordance to the policy.

“We are grateful to our other students and parents for their understanding and cooperation in maintaining the privacy, dignity and educational access for all of our students,” he said. “It is gratifying to see the school community cooperating to make it work for everyone.”

Remy said the equal access policy plays out in daily interactions of all kinds, not just restroom use and not just for transgender students.

“The policy that covers this is very broad in assuring all students have the right to access education and feel safe at school,” he said. “Restroom use of a transgender student is handled on a case-by-case basis. There are a lot of variables because every student is different and every school is different.”

He said transgender students may start the process with any school staff they are comfortable talking to.

From there, the process could include private conversations with administrators, teachers and counselors.

He said the process results in “long-term arrangements — which could include bathroom use, involves many conversations with the student and their parents, and does not lend itself to a student changing gender identification frequently, casually or insincerely.”

Should a child try to take advantage of this policy, though it is not necessarily reported than anyone has, Remy said there is a discipline process that is based on the severity and frequency of the issue.

“We have progressive discipline, so the severity of the consequences would depend on the details/severity of the incident and the prior discipline record of the student who misbehaved,” he said.

When asked which schools have had to seek solutions for transgender students, Remy said they did not wish to name them.

“We would like to err on the side of protecting student privacy,” he said. “We may also have transgender students that are not known by school staff and the other students to be transgender.

“These issues could occur at any school, elementary, middle or high.”

Amy Herzfeld, movement building director for Basic Rights Oregon in Portland, said the LGBTQ+ rights organization is really excited about the federal guidelines.

She said they are particularly heartened to see the Oregon Department of Education guidelines — which state transgender students in the state should be able to use whatever names, bathrooms and pronouns they want — referenced in the national guidelines.

Herzfeld said this is a values statement from the federal offices and ultimately a pool of resources for school districts across the country to use.

By the federal government releasing these guidelines, she said they are stating they are “prepared to step in” to see transgender students’ rights protected.

She said the United States Department of Health and Human Services also released guidelines for updates on health care plans regarding transgender people this week.

“I think LGBTQ advocates are feeling pretty celebratory this week,” she said. “Oregon is on the leading edge.”

Alex Pulaski, a spokesperson from the Oregon School Boards Association, said a member of the association worked with the Oregon Department of Education to release its guidelines earlier this week.

“Our advice to date is that anti-discrimination policies already in place are sufficient to protect all students, but we appreciate the guidance from both the state and federal governments on this issue,” Pulaski said.

He said the association has received several inquiries on this issue, adding Eugene has developed a specific transgender policy.

Some districts across the state and country are now following suit with the federal guidelines, if they weren’t already, like Salem-Keizer.

Rich McFarland, assistant superintendent to the Central School District, said, “As a district, we strive to respect the dignity and privacy for all students.”

To his knowledge, he said there haven’t been any issues or opposition to the way the district currently operates, which is to accommodate transgender students’ requests and make sure all students feel safe and respected.

McFarland said it is his understanding there are some transgender students at the high school who requested private bathrooms and the school was able to accommodate.

He said they will be following the recently issued Oregon Department of Education guidelines.

Dallas School District has been in the news in recent months concerning transgender students’ rights, but did not return our attempts to contact them.

We were told Dennis Engle, assistant superintendent, was in a meeting and would call us back, though we did not receive another call or email from him.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon contacted the Dallas School District with its interpretation of the law regarding transgender students and bathroom access.

Because of the letter the union sent to the district, the Oregon Department of Education reached out to the ACLU of Oregon to read and provide comments on the state guidelines.

Mat dos Santos, legal director for the union, said Oregon’s guidelines are similar to New York’s and Connecticut’s, but in his opinion, Oregon has done the best job.

“I am incredibly pleased to see the Oregon Department of Education take this issue on so expansively,” he said. “The guidelines are what we (ACLU Oregon) see is the correct interpretation of the law.”

Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. Contact Natalie at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate, on Facebook at http://www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist or on the Web at nataliepate.com 

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