- Michael D. Clark Staff Writer
UPDATED @ 4:19 p.m.:
A day after the Lakota school board rejected a new transgender student policy, district officials released a statement assuring such students will continue to have the protections afforded by existing policies.
“While the Board of Education did not agree on the passing of (the) policy …, I have no doubt that our board members are looking out for the best interest of all of our students,” Lakota Board of Education President Ben Dibble said via a statement today.
“Existing policies and administrative guidelines designed to protect and support all of our students, including the transgender community, remain in place. We certainly appreciate the strong advocacy we heard from some of our parents, and hope they can understand the gravity with which our board approaches these decisions,” Dibble said.
School officials said, “while this specific policy was not approved, current policies and administrative guidelines help direct the district’s practices for protecting all students, including the transgender community, against bullying, harassment and discrimination. The district will continue its practice of being student-focused while complying with federal and state laws concerning students’ civil rights.”
Matt Miller, superintendent of Lakota Schools echoed Dibble’s stance, saying “all of our students at Lakota Schools will continue to receive equal opportunity and access to a quality education.”
“The absence of a policy specific to our transgender community does not change our continued efforts to support their individual needs. We will continue to act in the best interest of all our students,” Miller said.
By a slim margin, the Lakota school board rejected a proposed “gender identity” policy that would have dramatically expanded the rights of transgender students.
The board meeting Monday evening was marked by passionate rhetoric as many supporters of the policy change, which would have allowed students — or for young students, their parents — to determine which gender they identified with, how teachers would address them.
School parents of transgender students told the board they feared for the emotional and physical safety of transgender students.
And the next day Lakota officials released a statement assuring transgender students will continue to have the protections afforded by existing policies.
The proposed policy included stipulations requiring teachers to recognize transgender students with their self-chosen names and appropriate pronouns adhering to the students’ preference. It also further codified policies involving restrooms and locker rooms and sports participation.
The board voted 3-2 to reject the policy changes.
Some members voting down the changes contended the district’s current policies and guidelines are sufficient to cover transgender students and cited Lakota schools already accommodating such students through the offering gender-neutral restrooms in schools.
Moreover, board members Ben Dibble, Lynda O’Connor and Todd Parnell who voted against the new policy, cited the district’s current anti-harassment policies as already protecting transgender students from discrimination.
But O’Connor said the new policy needed more study and review for any legal ramifications.
“I don’t think a rushed policy is a good policy,” she said. “I cannot support this policy … because it is a poorly written policy.”
O’Connor also told the standing room crowd of more than 180 that packed the board meeting room she was “concerned about parental rights are usurped” because of provisions where students could change their gender name without parental permission.
But board members Ray Murray and Julie Shaffer said they were concerned about the lack of specificity in the current policy as it applies to transgender students and expressed concerns that treatment of transgender students across the 16,500-student district was inconsistent from school to school.
The new policy “protects transgender students by allowing them to feel safe and accepted,” said Murray.
“We as a district are currently working with kids that are (gender) transitioning, but we need to have clear and consistent guidelines to help our kids go through this difficult point in their life,” said Murray.
But Board Vice President Todd Parnell said complex issues involved in any possible changing of such a policy require more time for study by the board.
“This has been a rushed, haphazard process,” Parnell said of the proposed policy first introduced last month.
Lakota special education teacher Emilly Osterling, who is also chair of the National Education Association Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, credited the school system with working with transgender students but said a more specific policy is needed.
“Lakota has already been accommodating these students for years. However, policy is necessary because it guarantees that the district will continue to acknowledge this student population and their needs despite change over in staff and administration,” Osterling told the Journal-News.
“I’m disappointed that the board didn’t vote to implement a formal, district-wide policy this evening,” she said.
“The policy isn’t about restrooms, it’s about removing social stigma, educating the public about gender identity, creating safer and more inclusive classrooms and telling our transgender students — we see you,” said Osterling.