“Identifying [transgender students] as a group opens up opportunities for undeserved bullying, harassment or discrimination.”
By Brandi Makuski
Ask any administrator in the Stevens Point Area Public School District about the nation’s new transgender bathroom directive, and they’ll all answer you in the same manner: with unwavering support.
Transgender students in the district are now allowed to use public school bathrooms matching their gender identity, thanks to a new federal directive that went into effect on May 13.
Interim Superintendent Lee Bush said district offices received a joint guidance document from the Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and U.S. Department of Justice — Civil Rights Division directing all public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their gender identity as opposed to their birth gender. The directive was no surprise, Bush said, but that it came from the federal government certainly was.
“We were expecting something from a district court, something on the state level maybe,” Bush said Tuesday. “It was a surprise to see it come from the federal level, but it turns out that’s a good thing because then it’s a standard everywhere.”
Bush said the new policy will likely make some parents and students uncomfortable, but added, “Civil rights laws have always made people uncomfortable at first.”
Greg Nyen, director of student serves for the district, said administrators have been already been discussing a transgender bathroom policy for about a year. Language relating to inclusion of transgender individuals was added to several district policies last March.
“Transgender individuals are a protected class under Title IX and Title VII,” Nyen said. “Certainly we receive funds from the federal government, and with our limited resources we’re not in a position to do anything that could put receiving those funds in jeopardy.”
Nyen also read from the directive sent to the district: “The desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.”
When asked for an estimate on how many transgender students are in the district who might benefit from the new directive, Nyen said the district “could neither confirm or deny the presence of transgender students in the district.”
“I think if you were to look at a district this size and apply the typical demographics, there certainly exists the possibility — if not now, then in the future — we have students who fall into this subgroup,” he added. “Certainly we need to respect their privacy; identifying them as a group opens up opportunities for undeserved bullying, harassment or discrimination. We need to respect the dignity and uniqueness of all the students and provide a high-quality education, which includes meeting their social, emotional and behavioral needs.”
Nyen went on to say transgender students hold a deep-seeded belief they were born with “mismatched anatomy” and the district would make whatever accommodations it could to make all students feel safe and included.
“Our job is to ensure the dignity and the rights of our students; part of that is, we have a legal obligation to follow the laws of the land,” Bush said. “This is going to be perking up in the court system, but until such time as we’ve been told not to do this, we are going to be doing this.”
SPASH principal Jon Vollendorf said his staff is already having frank discussions with students not only to explain the new directive, but to address concerns for privacy and safety.
“The one thing that’s important for everybody to remember is, trying to respect individual differences and needs is something we’ve always been trying to do, even before this was news,” Vollendorf said. “We do that by making different bathrooms accessible — although we’ve never had any issues with locker rooms; it’s just never come up. We’ve always tried to provide that network of support.”
Vollendorf said the school’s counselors are the primary contact with students over the issue, but added any staff member can be a resource.
“What we’re doing with bathrooms, what we try to stress is, we will accommodate whatever needs we need to accommodate,” he added. “But I will tell you; in a school this size, we have a bathroom shortage. If you go into a newer building, bathrooms are built in three’s; there is a men’s, a women’s and a unisex bathroom. That’s something I’ve been talking with district officials on throughout this year.”
Bush said the district is discussing multiple options for permanent changes to existing bathroom facilities, to include the addition of unisex bathrooms in all schools — SPASH already has one — and making existing bathroom stalls even more private by reducing doorway gaps and installing floor-to-ceiling walls between toilets.
But funds are tight. In a district already talking about a possible operational referendum, options for new construction are very limited, Nyen said.
“We receive anywhere between $2 million and $4 million annually from the federal government,” he said. “So if you look at remodeling bathrooms, or locker rooms, or private changing facilities, those all come with a price tag. When we weigh out whether we need more educational staff or more changing areas, well, we need both, but we can’t do both.”
Bush said while all staff members in the district will publicly support the new directive, he and others in the district are prepared for unhappy parents or students who are uncomfortable with the new policy, something he referred to as “ripples” of the new directive.
“We’re here to teach students; we teach acceptance of others. We teach acceptance of differences,” Bush said. “We can only be honest about what we’re going to do; we exist for the kids. If there are ripples that what we do causes, ripples with parents or community members, we don’t exist for them. We exist for the kids. We’re going to protect students’ rights and follow the law.”
Nyen added there’s no “one-size-fits-all” method to address concerns from students, and each would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“Yes, the district will have policies that provide general governance, but we need to look that each case,” he said. “Just as we want to provide for the dignity and uniqueness of student A, affording them their rights may create a level of uncomfortableness [sic] in student B, and then we then need to address the needs of student B.”
The district will address the issue at its next policy and legislative committee meeting on June 7 to craft a formal district policy, one that will likely mirror federal guidelines, Bush said.
“Parents can certainly come to this meeting and voice their opinions,” Bush said. “But part of what we do is to educate; if we need to educate during this process, educate parents as well, these are all things that we will be talking about.”
The policy and legislative committee meets at 7:45 PM on June 7 at Bliss Educational Services Center, 1900 Polk Street. The public is welcome to attend.