Supporters speak up on school gender-identity practices

An ongoing dialogue over the Bartholomew Consolidated School Board’s decision to add protections based on gender identity to its antidiscrimination policy took a different turn this week.

That difference was an increase in number of people speaking in support of the change.

The BCSC board voted May 23 to update the language in its antidiscrimination policy to include protections based on gender identity. The policy had included protections based on transgender status since 2013, and district leaders said this year’s change was meant to reflect new language used nationwide to discuss LGBT rights.

However, some parents — sometimes in groups as big as 100 or as small as three — attended that May 23 meeting and the four subsequent ones to speak against what they said are possible negative consequences of the updated policy.

Nearly 20 residents attended Monday’s meeting, with about half of them speaking critically about the policy.

If the updated policy could allow transgender students of one biological gender to use restrooms or locker rooms designated for the other gender, parents said, then it also could open the door for predators to assault students in the restrooms.

Throughout the four-month discussion of the antidiscrimination policy, including Monday night’s board meeting, president Jill Shedd has said that the district handles situations with transgender students on a case-by-case basis. Further, Shedd has emphasized that the policy only addresses discrimination issues and does not provide specific guidelines on student restroom use.

During these discussions, smaller groups of residents — usually no more than four or five people — would speak out in support of the policy, saying it was the best way to protect LGBT students.

However, the number of supporters at Monday’s meeting — about eight — was twice what it has been in the past as parents, educators and local faith leaders spoke in favor of the board’s actions.

Among those supporters was the Rev. Felipe Martinez, pastor at First Presbyterian Church. Martinez said his congregation is supportive of the LGBT community, so he supports the board’s efforts to make students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender feel safe and comfortable at school.

Further, Martinez said he has sons in the local public middle and high schools, and his concerns for their safety are not elevated by the updated language in the antidiscrimination policy.

Similarly, local resident Julia Stumpff said she believes her three children in BCSC schools are safe and said adding protections for their LGBT classmates was the right decision to make.

A major concern raised by parents throughout the ongoing discussion was the possibility of students being forced to shower in a locker room with a transgender student of the opposite biological gender.

Jeremy Hancock said during Monday’s meeting that he pulled his daughter out of the Columbus district because neither he nor his daughter were comfortable with the possibility of her showering in the same facility as a biological male identifying as a female.

However, Cathie Caldie, a life skills teacher at Columbus East High School, said she has taken her special-needs students into female locker rooms at East and knows for a fact that the showers are separated by individual stalls with privacy curtains.

Caldie said she thinks many parents are remembering back to their high school days when students were required to take group showers after gym class, but those days are largely over, she said.

Steven Walters, a local resident who identifies as a member of the LGBT community, said he attended BCSC schools as a child. Looking back, Walters said he wished such a policy would have been in place because it would have made him feel safer in school.

More often than not, LGBT students are more likely to feel at-risk at school than students not working through sexual-orientation or gender-identity issues, Walters said.

School board attorney Kelly Benjamin concurred and cited recent national research that shows 95 percent of transgender students said they feel unsafe at school. Similarly, research also shows that 41 percent of transgender students will contemplate or attempt suicide, she said.

Further, Benjamin said there is no evidence to support some parents’ claims that including gender identity protections will open the door for predators to access student restrooms.

In general, school restrooms have more oversight than public restrooms, with safeguards such as hall passes and hall monitors in places to ensure students are behaving appropriately, the attorney said.

Despite Benjamin’s claims, some parents continued to argue on Monday that the antidiscrimination policy would allow students to wake up on any given morning and decide to identify as the opposite sex.

But Shedd fought that notion, saying such a statement oversimplifies the personal process students go through in coming to the decision to publicly identify as transgender. Such a decision cannot be made in one day, Shedd said, and if it were, the district would need more than one day to decide if that student could use a different restroom.

Similarly, Benjamin said the parents’ concerns were based on the notion that students want to be discovered as being transgender. More often than not, transgender students do not want to be discovered, so the idea that they would be inclined to enter a restroom or locker and expose themselves is unfounded, she said.

Although parents have repeatedly asked the school board to either overturn the antidiscrimination policy or include safeguards that will protect the majority of students who are not transgender, BCSC superintendent Jim Roberts has said that the board does not plan on taking any additional action on this issue.

Past stories —

Parents oppose BCSC gender identity policy, threaten to keep children out of school

BCSC makes gender identity policy change despite public opposition

School’s gender identity policy: Parents weigh transfers; others urge acceptance

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