District approves transgender student policy

Ben Jutzi, Executive Copy Editor

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Students walk past the gender-neutral bathroom, which is located across the SAC. The new district policy ensures students have access to the restroom that corresponds to their consistently expressed gender identity. Photo by Richard Chu

Trembling slightly, law firm partner Krista Frick-Jewett, parent of three District #225 students, approached the podium. Although not planning to speak on the topic of the district’s proposed new transgender student policy, she was compelled to after hearing opposition. When explaining why, she broke into tears.

“A lot of people [at the meeting raised] the issues of money and litigation,” said Frick-Jewett. “That pales in comparison to these kids’ lives and how so many are marginalized. I don’t believe this policy plays to the detriment of anyone who is not transgender, but it could save the life of somebody who is.”

According to Superintendent Mike Riggle, the new policy clarifies procedures that have already been in place for transgender students’ involvement in athletic and extracurricular activities as well as for bathroom and locker room access. The policy was approved with a 5-0 vote by the Glenbrook High School District #225 School Board at its meeting on Jan. 22, 2018, with one member abstaining from the vote and one member absent.

Previous district procedures involved working with transgender students on a case-by-case basis to help the district meet the students’ needs and make them feel comfortable, Riggle said.

He said transgender students have the option to use the privacy stalls in bathrooms and the privacy changing stalls in locker rooms, which are available to all students.“As they’re navigating what they’re comfortable with and not comfortable with, we try to work that out so that we can have all students … comfortable,” said Riggle. “But basically when you’re assigned a [P.E.] class, and then you have an assigned dressing area, then you should be allowed to dress in the area that is in line with your gender identity.”

According to the policy, some transgender students “who have not made public their transgender status, but who do not wish to use the locker room of the sex they were assigned at birth” may be able to receive special accommodations.

The district’s new policy also affirms its current practice in the area of athletics. Athletes who wish to compete on an athletic team that aligns with a gender different from that given to them at birth must go through a process set by the IHSA, said Riggle. The IHSA would then decide whether to grant the athlete that request.

For activities in which students are separated by gender, such as overnight trips, students will typically be allowed to participate in accordance with their consistently asserted gender identity, according to the policy. Activities requiring overnight accommodations will be addressed on a case-by-case basis and will incorporate such factors as student preference, protecting student privacy, maximizing social integration of students and protecting the safety of all students.

The new district policy, which reflects and reinforces these past practices, was partly created due to a growing awareness of “how transgender people in general are treated in different situations,” and Riggle said he hopes it will allow them to feel more comfortable and accepted within the district.

       According to Bruce Doughty, vice president of the Glenbrook High School District #225 School Board, recent decisions such as court rulings in favor of transgender students helped indicate that it was time to put the district’s practices into a policy.

“This policy is really designed to continue our efforts to be inclusive of all students, to allow students to thrive and take advantage of opportunities, and not to feel discriminated against or bullied or otherwise precluded from making the most of their experience in high school,” Doughty said.

At the board meeting on Jan. 22, as well as at the previous meeting on Jan. 8, community members  voiced support for the policy. However, numerous people asked the board to vote against the policy or to postpone any vote on the policy at the most recent meeting.

Glenbrook South Alumnus Peter Stamatis (‘86), who voiced his opposition at the Jan. 22 meeting, said as a lawyer, he believes the board should have held off from approving the policy until relevant court cases are fully resolved.

“I’m concerned about the rights of other people who might feel like their rights are discriminated against,” said Stamatis. “There are a lot of competing rights in this and the district needs to educate everyone.”

Stamatis believes it would have been appropriate for the district to wait because he has not “seen any instance of discrimination” in the district that would make the policy necessary. He said while he cares about all students, he worries about the potential litigation that could arise, which could bring about high legal costs for the district.

At the meeting, John Fester, legal counsel to the Glenbrook High School District #225 School Board, said the district “can get sued from either side,” so a new policy would not bring a greater risk of lawsuits than what the district currently faces.

The board decided to move forward with the vote despite community opposition, as they did not believe the legal landscape on the issue would change in a drastic manner. In addition, the board chose not to send the policy back to the administrative phase for revision because doing so would delay its implementation.

According to Riggle, the new policy will also serve to protect the district in the case of a lawsuit as the previous board policy did not clarify protections for transgender students.

“As we were looking at school board policy 8000, [Equal Educational and Extracurricular Opportunities], we had the right language there for the protected class of gender identity, but we really didn’t have anything in our policy that would speak more clearly to transgender students,” he said.

At the meeting, Fester informed the board about a recent court case in Kenosha in which a teacher’s actions led to a lawsuit when the teacher stopped a transgender student from using the bathroom that aligned with his gender identity. He said the proposed policy would protect District #225 from a similar occurrence because it provides “employees guidance on what to do and at least lets them know [that] if they don’t know what to do, to ask.”

According to the new policy, staff are “expected to accept a student’s consistently asserted gender identity when it is a sincerely held part of the student’s core identity.” Staff members are not to “question or disregard” a student’s asserted gender identity without a “credible basis” that the student did so for an “improper purpose.” Riggle said he is confident in the new policy and its message.“Every student who’s here, and every staff member we have, needs to be treated with respect,” said Riggle. “They need to be afforded all the opportunities of anyone else, and it’s our responsibility to make that happen.”

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District approves transgender student policy