YORK, Maine — After working for months to update the language of the York School Department’s policies on transgender students, the York School Committee has approved new revisions to reflect evolutions in state law.
The committee voted in favor of the edits on first reading April 7 and again on second reading May 5, then ultimately adopted the updated policy, according to Chair Dave Herbein.
The underlying policy has been in place since 2018. The substantive change between the 2018 policy and the new policy is the inclusion of an expanded definition for the term “gender identity.”
Maine’s definition of gender identity
Herbein said the law originally lumped sexual orientation and gender identity together. Since then, Maine has updated its law to say that gender identity exists as a separate and distinct protected class from sexual orientation, he said.
The committee’s discussions come as conversations about transgender students have been increasingly prevalent nationwide and in York, as some states propose and enact laws to bar transgender women and girls from sports teams that match their gender identity. Additionally, some candidates running for York School Committee in the May 22 election have raised concerns over how to address transgender issues in the classroom.
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When it comes to interscholastic athletic competition, York’s policy is the same as the Maine Principals’ Association, which affirms that all students should have access to activities consistent with their gender identity, York High School Athletic Director Jeff Oliver said.
York’s updated policy was adopted with revisions to the first draft, which were suggested by member Meredith Schmid and which expounded upon the state’s legal definition of gender identity.
Gender identity is defined by the Maine Human Rights Act as the gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms or other gender-related characteristics of an individual regardless of the individual’s assigned sex at birth.
Schmid added a secondary definition, which was adapted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Gender identity may also be defined as a person’s internal sense of being male or female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female,” Schmid read aloud during the meeting.
Generally, school committee policies are derived from state and federal law, said Herbein. The 2018 policy for transgender students was written to reflect Maine state law, which established the transgender community as a protected class and “to support York students,” he added.
Pronoun and name policy
The policy updates the language and procedures used when discussing and accommodating transgender students, as well as addressing any harassment that transgender students may encounter, committee member Brenda Alexander explained.
Comments submitted to the committee from a few community members raised concerns over protections for students who are not transgender.
“If a student or teacher breaks this policy and calls a transgender student by their natural born pronoun or name, either inadvertently or on purpose, what are the consequences for that student or teacher?” Julie Bishop Edminster asked.
Alexander said the policy is not intended to impose consequences for accidental misuse of a pronoun or name. The policy, she said, is intended to protect students from the misuse of their names or pronouns rising to the level of harassment.
Harassment would include the intent to cause some kind of harm and the repeated misuse of a student’s gender pronouns.
A student’s best protection from consequences related to this policy, Alexander said, would be to either comply with it or leave the person alone.
“We have to create a safe educational environment for everybody,” she said.
Transgender, nonbinary youth suicide rate
In its second annual National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, The Trevor Project found that transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all or most people in their lives attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not.
More than half of transgender and nonbinary youths having seriously considered suicide, and 40% of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered suicide within the past 12 months, according to the survey.
In addition to meeting with parents to develop a plan for a student who is transgender or transitioning, one of the guidelines within the policy asserts that teachers and students should address a student by their pronouns corresponding to the gender identity they “consistently assert at school,” unless the student has chosen not to disclose their identity yet.
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The policy notes that students should still be addressed by their gender identity, even if they cannot access a legal name change or gender marker change on official documents.
“This foundational respect should not rely on whether a student has access,” the policy states.
If a student sets up a meeting with the principal to discuss their gender identity and pronouns, the school is going to honor that request “to the extent possible,” Alexander said.
The policy states that transgender students may use the locker room that matches their “consistently asserted” gender identity. It also states that transgender students who ask for privacy will be provided “reasonable alternative facilities or accommodations.”
In a written comment, Nina Wright said she understands and agrees with the policy but wants to know how schools will make accommodations “for the students who do not feel safe, comfortable or respected in these environments.”
YHS Principal Karl Francis said the hypothetical situation of a student who feels uncomfortable sharing a locker room or restroom with transgender students may not be as relevant, since YHS has eight private, gender-neutral bathrooms.
“Anybody at any time who felt uncomfortable or preferred an individual bathroom versus a larger bathroom … there are plenty available in our school,” Francis said.
Additionally, Oliver said showering at school hasn’t been as common as it once was in York for at least a few years. With COVID-19 procedures, only five students are allowed into the locker room at a time.
“They’re not places students are hanging out for a long amount of time, so that leaves us a lot of flexibility,” Oliver said.
Alexander said that if you are concerned about your non-transgender student being uncomfortable in a locker room setting, then you can reach out to the school administration and make a plan similar to the plan created for transgender students.
Edminster also asked if a student can choose to shower or change in the girls locker room within hours of asserting their gender identity — to which committee member Julie Eneman replied no, not without going through the procedure of having a meeting with the school.
In a comment on Facebook, former YSD special education employee Lisa Jones said she is proud of the school committee.
“Being proactive and protective of everyone’s rights is so important, but especially those who have been left out,” Jones wrote.
If you need immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) and through online chats suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.
The Trevor Project Lifeline 1-866-488-7386.