First-day student walkout canceled

Walkout was threatened over policy overhaul

A threatened walk-out during Wednesday’s first day of school over a change to Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s anti-discrimination policy has been canceled.

The action had been encouraged through social media by a group of residents protesting a May decision by the BCSC board to add gender identity to a list of protected classes in official board policies, an update to language in a 2013 policy to protect students based on transgender status.

The group has been protesting the approval at school board meetings since then, saying the change means students of one biological gender would be allowed to use restrooms or locker rooms designated for the opposite gender. Although the non-discrimination policy does not specifically address restroom use, the parents said it could create a way for predators to pretend to identify as the opposite gender only in an attempt to look at or assault students in restroom or locker room facilities, particularly facilities provided for females.

“We have came to the conclusion that walking out or missing the first day will simply have no effect,” the group reported through social media. “That first day can be important to many kids … This is a difficult issue that will take time to solve.”

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Superintendent Jim Roberts said he is confident his district has created a safe and secure learning environment for all students.

Roberts sat in on his first school board meeting as BCSC superintendent July 18, when a group of about 60 residents expressed their concerns about the non-discrimination policy.

Roberts said he respects parents’ rights to make the decisions that they feel are best for their families, but said he also encourages parents to send their children to school so that each child has the opportunity to receive a quality education.

Starting with the opening of school Wednesday, “our staff members will again do what they do best — expand the knowledge and skills of all children in a safe and secure learning environment,” he said.

Roberts, who became the district superintendent about a month after the gender identity protection was added, said case studies of transgender student restroom use across the country show no evidence of any type of the behavior being described by the protesters as ever occurring.

Roberts emphasized that BCSC students struggling with gender dysphoria will not be automatically allowed to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity, rather than their biological gender. Instead, the students will have to work individually with their parents and district leaders to develop a plan that makes them feel comfortable while also keeping other students safe.

The superintendent declined to comment specifically on how the district has handled those situations in the past, saying the number of affected students is so small that revealing any sort of information about transgender students in the district would essentially be the same as calling out those students by name.

State and federal education laws prohibit schools from publicly discussing students’ Individual Education Plans or medical accommodations, he said, so students dealing with gender dysphoria should be given the same courtesy.

The potential first day of school walkout was being organized through a Facebook page called “Take Back Our Schools _ BCSC.” However, organizers of the page have now written to their supporters that the walkout has been postponed to a date closer to Sept. 16.

That date is significant because it’s when Indiana school districts across the state must submit their enrollment numbers to the Indiana Department of Education. The education department then uses those enrollment numbers, as well as another enrollment snapshot in February, to determine how much state funding each district will receive.

The parents who support the student walkout have said that their aim is to pull their kids out of school on a day that might cause the district to lose some of its funding, but Roberts said individual student absences do not play a roll in determining state funding.

The district deals with absences every day of the school year, and at times the number of absences is higher due to issues such as the flu virus, Roberts said.

But the number of students attending school on an individual day is not what drives state funding, he said. Instead, it’s the total number of students enrolled in the district.

So even if parents were to keep their children home on Sept. 16, those students would still be included in the overall enrollment count and their absences would not result in a fewer state dollars for the district, the superintendent said.

Despite the numerous concerns about the non-discrimination policy that have been brought up to the school board, Roberts said the majority of emails he has received from residents have been positive and receptive to the idea of extending protections to transgender students.

Tracy Souza, president and CEO of Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, said her organization is in favor of initiatives and policies that create a welcoming environment for all students.

Souza said she sees the school board’s recent decision to extend protections based on gender identity as an opportunity to open up a dialogue in the Columbus community.

That’s why she is working with Roberts and other community leaders to organize a community event that will educate residents on what it means to be a welcoming community and will provide them with an opportunity to openly discuss the non-discrimination policy.

Some members of the Columbus faith community have even gotten involved in the effort to ensure transgender students feel safe and welcome in BCSC schools.

Malorie Farrington, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, said she and her fellow parishioners are organizing a safety pin initiative to show support for transgender students.

The safety pin is meant to be a symbol of solidarity with students struggling with gender dysphoria, Farrington said. If a student feels bullied because of their gender identity, they can look for other students, teachers or community members wearing safety pins on their shirts and know that those people will offer them support and protection.

Farrington said her congregation has been working with the congregation at First Presbyterian Church to get the word out about the safety pin initiative. She said the pins are being handed out at the local Unitarian Universalist church, and she is also looking for a way to share information about the initiative within the local school district.

Despite ongoing parent concerns, Roberts said both he and the school board are comfortable with and confident in the district’s decision to extend protections based on gender identity. Because of that confidence, the superintendent said the policy will likely not be added as an agenda action item for any upcoming school board meetings.

Parents can still voice their concerns about the policy during the public dialogue and stakeholder comments portions of board meetings, but if the policy is not listed as an action item, then no change will be made.

Roberts emphasized that he, the district administration and individual teachers all have the best interests of students in mind and will do their best to keep students safe while providing a high-quality learning environment.

What's next

Wednesday is the first day of school for Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp., and superintendent Jim Roberts is urging all parents to send their children to school, if possible.

A student walkout in protest of the school board’s anti-discrimination policy has been canceled for Wednesday but is still a possibility for around Sept. 16.

The next BCSC school board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 8. If parents once again express their concerns about the policy at that meeting, it will be the sixth consecutive meeting where the policy has been debated.

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