JSD to consider policies regarding transgender students

A South Dakota bill requiring transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding to their assigned sex at birth has been tabled, but in Juneau the conversation is just starting.

For now, the Juneau School District is working with transgender students on a case-by-case basis to make accommodations for using locker rooms.

“I think in cases like that, students are using a single-occupancy facility,” said JSD spokeswoman Kristin Bartlett, which are “available to students who might not identify with the gender they were born with …”

Though there is not a specific policy in place, the district does use existing policies and laws to guide its decisions.

“The Juneau School District does not currently have adopted guidelines or policies regarding gender inclusivity/transgender students and staff,” Bartlett said. “We follow our current nondiscrimination policy and work with students and families to determine appropriate accommodations as necessary for all students to be included in academics, activities and programs.”

Added Bartlett: “I do know in some situations there are some students either using a bathroom or locker room that does correspond to their gender identity.”

Bartlett said the single-occupancy facilities are “in our schools and all of the staff facilities are all single occupancy and are used by all genders, and schools do have single occupancy facilities that can be used by anyone for any reason.”

And while students and families who wish to arrange appropriate accommodations are invited to do so, not every student whose gender identity differs from that assigned at birth may seek out said accommodations.

“This is about students who consistently identify with a gender over time,” Bartlett said. “It’s not like people can change their mind every day. It’s not just an open ‘you can use whatever facility you feel like.’ This is why we take it on a case-by-case basis.”

She said school principals are working with students and families “to make a plan that works for the student and does not infringe upon anyone’s rights.”

The rights and privacy of transgender students is something the district also must consider.

Neither Bartlett nor Superintendent Mark Miller could comment on specific accommodations, if any, that may have been made for students within the district.

“If a student doesn’t want to have that conversation or if they don’t request that conversation” there’s no obligation that the conversation happens, Miller said.

Students aren’t obligated to disclose their gender at all, he added.

Bartlett said no high school students have complained about the district’s current practice, but if they did feel uncomfortable sharing a locker room for any reason that student could request other accommodations.

In addition to the current non-discrimination policy, students are protected by state and federal laws (Alaska Statute AS 14.18.010 and Title IX), protecting students from discrimination based on sex and race. In these cases, gender is implied under protections for sex, if not explicitly stated.

Bartlett said she anticipates that even with a written policy, accommodations will still be developed on a case-by-case basis dependent on student needs.

The school district has seen students whose gender identity does not match their born gender for at least a decade now, Bartlett estimated, but it wasn’t until 2014 that school districts received guidelines addressing how to accommodate students within the bounds of the law.

One of the reasons the topic is now coming up, Bartlett said, is because students today feel “safer being who they are” than in the past.

Miller agreed, and recognizes the accompanying challenges.

“As society and schools — which are a microcosm of society — become more tolerant, that’s change,” Miller said. “And change is almost always accompanied by some amount of tension and feeling of being uncomfortable.”

Bartlett added: “And that’s going to be our next step, is to help, to educate people.”

The district is working on a plan to provide education about gender identity among its school communities, and to train staff on their responsibilities under current laws and regulations.

Bartlett said many districts are adopting guidelines that include, alongside segregated restrooms and locker rooms for male and female students or employees, the addition of more single-occupancy facilities.

Bartlett clarified, however, that while any student may choose to use these single-occupancy facilities, no student may be required to use the facilities.

Bartlett said Juneau schools must be a “safe, inclusive learning and working environment for all of our students and employees.”

One of the defining features of public schools is that all are welcome, Miller pointed out, and the district is determined — and bound by law, in many regards — to make sure each student feels welcome.

Bartlett said the topic is being discussed at the district and statewide levels in Alaska, though no plan has reached the school board for consideration yet.

“The Board hasn’t adopted a policy yet,” Juneau Board of Education Vice President Andi Story said. “As always, according to open meetings act, we will have two readings at separate board meetings on any public policy before adoption.”

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