Dozens of parents with children enrolled in Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. said they were left feeling frustrated and uncertain Monday after their calls for a change to the district’s antidiscrimination policy were not heeded.

An audience of about 60 people filled the M. Sue Pifer Terrace Room at the district administration building, where the seven-member BCSC school board heard nearly an hour of comments from several parents concerned about the board’s recent decision to add gender identity to its list of protected classes.

Discussion of the district’s antidiscrimination policy was not specifically included on Monday’s meeting agenda, but the parents used the public dialogue portions of the meeting to voice their concerns. Because the policy was not listed as an official agenda item, the board took no action based on the parents’ comments.

After learning at the May 23 board meeting that the policy — which district leaders say was a change in language only — could allow transgender students to use the restroom that does not align with their biological sex, local parents immediately expressed outrage, saying the policy opened the door for predators to pretend to identify as the opposite gender in an effort to take advantage of students in the restrooms.

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Similar concern was repeated Monday, when the parents gathered at the board meeting as a final effort to get some closure on the issue before the Aug. 3 start of the school year.

But parents like Josh Turner, who has five children enrolled in the district, said Monday’s meeting left them with more questions than answers.

Although district leaders have said that the majority of transgender students they have worked with have been in high school, Turner said he is more concerned about the safety of his five-year-old daughter.

Turner said he thinks it is illogical for the district to wait to begin sex education until students are preteens, yet potentially expose girls as young as his daughter to the male anatomy through the risks he sees with the antidiscrimination policy.

If his daughter were to encounter an inappropriate situation in a school restroom, Turner said his family’s life would never be the same.

“It only takes one bad thing to change lives,” he said.

Heidi Cooley, whose daughter will begin third grade this fall, expressed a similar concern.

Cooley said she recently sat down with her daughter and explained to her the implications of the antidiscrimination policy. As a result of that conversation, Cooley said her daughter is afraid to go to school and wants to be home-schooled instead. Cooley said she is still considering the option of home school and had hoped that Monday’s meeting would help her make up her mind.

However, Cooley said she was frustrated by the board’s position that all situations would be handled on a case-by-case basis and had hoped instead that members would explicitly state whether or not students will be allowed to use the restroom that does not align with their biological sex.

Like Cooley, Turner said he is still weighing his options about where he should send his children to school. His five children have requested to continue attending public school as they have always done, but Turner said he is conflicted about allowing them to do so because of the safety concerns he is now wrestling with as a result of the gender identity protections.

Parents consider actions

In the weeks since the May vote to add gender identity protections, many parents have said they were considering pulling their kids out of the local public school district and instead enroll them in private, parochial or home-school programs.

Kendall Wildey, principal of Columbus Christian School, said he has already enrolled a few new students for the coming school year as a direct result of BCSC’s antidiscrimination policy, and other families have toured the Columbus Christian facilities as they consider making the move out of BCSC.

At the May 23 board meeting, then-superintendent John Quick told residents that the board had passed a similar measure in 2013 to include protections for students based on transgender status.

Quick said at the time that updating the policy to include the words “gender identity” was simply meant to keep up with the language commonly used to discuss LGBT issues. He also said that in the three years since transgender protections were introduced in the district, the district had dealt with a few student situations on a case-by-case basis, and no other students had been hurt or affected by that process.

But on Monday, parents told board members that they never knew about the 2013 policy update and felt that the board had intentionally hid it.

In addition to considering transferring their students out of BCSC schools, some local parents, organizing through a Facebook page called “Take Back Our Schools – BCSC,” have suggested the idea of a walkout on the first day of school.

For the walkout, the Facebook page calls for parents to keep their children home on the first day of school as a way of protesting the antidiscrimination policy.

Laura Collins broached the topic of the walkout with board members Monday, saying such an action could result in a loss of state funding for the school district. No board members of district administrators responded to Collins’ comments, but a few people in the audience indicated that they supported the idea.

Turner was among those people.

Although Turner said he has not officially decided if his children will participate in the walkout, he said he is seriously considering the idea.

Cooley also said she would support the concept of keeping children home from school in protest of the gender identity protections.

Opposing walkout

However, Jahon Hobbeheydar, who said during the meeting that he understood parents’ concerns but also was concerned about the psychological effects reversing the policy would have on transgender students, urged parents to reconsider their participation in the walkout.

“Get your kids to school,” he said.

Enrollment-based state funding formulas do not use the number of students attending the first day of the school year in calculations, however. Dates that will be used to calculate school funding this year are Sept. 16 and Feb. 1.

Although the majority of the voices in Monday’s crowd spoke in favor of reversing the policy, a few encouraged the board to stand by their decision.

Among those voices was Kaylee Rea, a student who will begin her freshman year at Columbus North High School in August. Rea became visibly emotional as she listened to the conversation on Monday night, but said her emotions were driven by appreciation of the people who spoke in favor of the antidiscrimination policy, not disappointment with those who spoke against it.

She was particularly touched by the words of Jason Tracy, a parent who said he worries about his daughters almost constantly but not when they are in the care of BCSC staff and administrators. In a display of solidarity, Tracy comforted Rea as she cried.

Board’s response

Board president Jill Shedd told the audience that she understood their concerns about student safety but said the board took the action it believed would be in the best interest of all students, including those struggling with gender dysphoria. She also emphasized several times that every situation dealing with a transgender student would be addressed individually.

Additionally, Shedd stressed that the antidiscrimination policy was just that — a policy written to prevent discrimination against certain classes of students. BCSC has no specific policy addressing the use of school restrooms and locker rooms by transgender students, and given the small number of cases the district has dealt with, such a policy is not currently necessary, she said.

Superintendent Jim Roberts, who took over July 1 following Quick’s retirement, told the parents that he believes all school districts across the country soon will be adopting gender identity protections. He also said that while it is the board’s job to establish such protections, it is up to senior school district administrators to determine how those protections will actually be applied to BCSC student life.

To that end, Shedd encouraged parents to share their opinions about the policy directly with Roberts so that he can form a deeper and more personal understanding of their concerns.

What's next

The addition of “gender identity” to the list of BCSC’s protected classes was unanimously passed on May 23, and the board is not scheduled to act on that policy again.

With that in mind, parents are now deciding whether their students will participate in a suggested student walkout. If they do, a Facebook event for the walkout is calling for parents to keep their children home on the first day of school — and any necessary subsequent days — to send a strong message to the board about their concerns over the anti-discrimination policy.

For more information about the parent organization, visit Facebook.com and search “Take Back our Schools – BCSC.”

To contact superintendent Jim Roberts, send an email to bcscsupt@bcsc.k12.in.us

Pride Alliance statement

In light of the discussions surrounding use of school restrooms by transgender students, Rachael Spadone, a Columbus, Indiana Pride Alliance board member, released this statement on behalf of the alliance:

“Earlier this year, the BCSC school board simply made an addition to an existing non-discrimination policy by including “gender identity” and did not specify any issues regarding using bathrooms. This change only creates a more inclusive, safe and accepting community for all students attending a BCSC school. By adding “gender identity” to its existing non-discrimination policy, BCSC demonstrates a commitment to recognizing all attending students. I applaud BCSC for including particularly vulnerable students into their policies and working toward creating environments that are safer for all children.”

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