Fearing female students would be placed at risk in school restrooms and locker rooms, parents and other local residents spoke out against a proposed change in a school district policy that would add gender identify to the list of protected classes within the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

The six school board members who were present at Monday night’s meeting each approved the change to the district’s equal opportunity policies to include gender identity in a list of protected classes under sex, which is its own protected class. Board member Bob Abrams did not attend the meeting, but said through a message read by president Jill Shedd that he would have voted in favor of the change if he were able to be present.

The vote came after an hour and a half of heated discussion among an audience of nearly 100 local parents and other residents who focused primarily on the risks they said will be incurred by female students if biological males who identify as females are allowed to use the girls’ restrooms.

The protections could allow some male students to choose to identify as girls only in an attempt to enter the female restrooms so that they could look at or sexually harass female students, members of the audience said.

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The parents — who at times shouted over each other and board members and even shed some tears — accused the board of adding the protections based on gender identity out of fear of negative public scrutiny and repercussions from the federal government.

But Shedd said it was serendipitous that the district was considering the policy change at the same time the U.S. Education and Justice departments handed down a directive advising all public schools to allow transgender students to use restroom and locker room facilities that align with their gender identity. Schools that refuse to comply will be at risk of losing federal funding.

Shedd and BCSC superintendent John Quick each maintained throughout the meeting that the policy change was in language only. The board voted in 2013 to include “transgender status” as a protected class, so the addition of “gender identity” is a change that is meant to keep up with the current terminology used to discuss LGBT issues, they said.

“There is nothing that we will have to do differently,” Shedd said.

Since the addition of transgender protections in 2013, Quick said there have been instances each year in which high school students of one biological gender have asked to use restroom facilities designated for the opposite gender.

In those instances, the district follows a systematic process that involves consultations with the student, parents, teachers and administrators to determine how to make both the student in question and other students as comfortable as possible, Quick said.

That process is prescribed legally, said Kelly Benjamin, school board attorney.

She referred to it as a treatment plan created to help school districts serve students with disabilities — in this case, gender dysphoria.

After following that policy, students could be permitted to use restrooms that do not conform with their biological sex, Quick said, causing an uproar among the audience as residents shouted things such as “Shame on you” at board members.

Some students have already been permitted to use restrooms that do no align with their biological gender, but there have been no reports of students being harassed as a result, Quick said.

Shedd pointed to the Columbus City Council, which amended the city’s human rights ordinance last fall to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, among other protected classes, as an example of the precedent for the school board’s actions.

“It’s who Columbus is,” she said.

But parent and grandparent Lisa Deaton said despite the city’s and school district’s efforts to be progressive, many Columbus residents would prefer to stick with traditional laws, especially when it comes to public schools.

“I think that we like our little hometown and that we want you guys to remember that we don’t have to be like everyone else. It’s OK to be different,” Deaton said to a round of applause.

School board member Polly Verbanic said she had spent months considering both sides of the debate and had ultimately decided that policies regarding transgender rights were behind the times of the science surrounding the issue.

She asked the audience to consider the question, “What discomforts am I personally willing to bear for the sake of others?”

Her own reflections on that question led her to believe that a one-size-fits-all policy regarding the rights of transgender students would never satisfy the comfort levels of both sides of the issue, so following the district’s existing case-by-case policy is the best course of action, she said.

Verbanic also encouraged the audience to trust board members, saying they were not naive and understood the ramifications of adding gender identity as a protected class.

But Justin Hohn, a local parent who also serves on the Columbus Park Board, said he could not simply place his trust in the bureaucracy of the school board, a statement that led to a round of applause and a swell of cheers across the audience.

Board member Jeff Caldwell also said he had spent a significant amount of time considering his vote on the addition of gender identity as a protected class, and ultimately decided through reading articles on the issue and listening to personal stories that supporting the protections was the right thing to do.

Amid the cries against the gender identity protections, a few members of the audience spoke out in favor of the measure.

Sondra Bolte, who won the William R. Laws Human Rights Award in 2008 from the Columbus Human Rights Commission, thanked the board for considering the protections, saying she believed its members would make the best decisions for local students.

Steve Jasper said that despite identifying as a gender that does not conform with their biological sex, transgender students are still loved by their parents and families and deserve the same respect other students would be given.

After the board’s favorable vote on the change to the equal opportunity policy change — as well as about 200 pages of other policy changes — some residents walked out of the meeting still shouting at board members, saying things such as “You’re all sick.”

Timeline on protected classes

  • Prior to 2013, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s equal education opportunity policies included protections against discrimination based on sex.
  • Protections based on sexual orientation and transgender status were added as protected classes under sex in 2013.
  • Monday’s vote added gender identity to the list of protected classes under sex.

On the Web

All school board policies are available by visiting bcsc.k12.in.us under “About Us – District School Board Policies.”

New policy on protected classes

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. policy on protected classes now reads:

“… the Board of School Trustees does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including transgender status, sexual orientation and gender identity), disability, age, religion, military status, ancestry, or genetic information, which are classes protected by Federal and/or State law (collectively, “Protected Classes”) occurring in the Corporation’s educational opportunities, programs, and/or activities, or … affecting the Corporation environment.”

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.