PORTLAND — The School Board Tuesday was expected to enact an expansive new transgender student rights policy.
The policy is the result of seven months of meetings between board members, school administrators and staff, parents, students and other community members.
The goal was a policy that “aligns with maintaining a safe and supportive environment for all students,” Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said at the board’s Nov. 14 meeting.
Under the policy, schools commit to “fostering a learning environment that is safe, affirming, and free from discrimination, harassment and bullying … and (that) assists in the educational and social integration and development of transgender and gender-expansive students.”
Alexander Fitzgerald, co-president of Deering High School’s Genders & Sexualities Alliance Club, on Nov. 14 called the new policy “a step forward in allowing students to receive equal treatment.
He said it “makes schools safer and more comfortable” for students like him.
The board was expected to give final approval to the new protections Nov. 28, after The Forecaster’s deadline.
At the first reading, board Chairwoman Anna Trevorrow said it was especially important to provide support for transgender students after learning that statistically they are more at risk for self-harm, homelessness, harassment and physical violence.
In introducing the policy two weeks ago, Botana said it shows that Portland is “a school district that’s committed to equity.”
He said the policy was created after the U.S. Department of Education withdrew its guidance on transgender student rights earlier this year.
Botana said having a clear transgender policy was highly recommended by the School Department’s legal counsel, as well as the Maine School Management Association.
Both Botana and Assistant Superintendent Jeanne Crocker, who took a lead role in formulating the new policy, said it’s likely to serve as a model for other school districts, particularly because it goes further than just addressing restroom and locker-room issues.
“This policy complements the many efforts being made throughout the school system to ensure that all students feel welcome and safe,” Botana said in a memo to the School Board. “In addition to articulating school and student responsibilities, the policy establishes training requirements for staff and otherwise encourages staff to work toward unbiased gender practices.”
In describing the new policy at the Nov. 14 meeting, Crocker said it meets the district’s goal of “knocking down the walls that stand between student learning and wellbeing.”
It also works to “dismantle the unintentional barriers to access” for transgender and gender-expansive students,” she added.
Crocker said after the federal government removed its guidelines, “it became clear that a (transgender) policy was necessary,” at the local level.
She said those who assisted in the creation of the new policy included Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director at GLAD in Boston, and Gia Drew, program director at Equality Maine.
Speaking in support of the new policy at the Nov. 14 meeting, Drew said very few school districts across Maine have transgender policies and that she was “heartened by the care and thoughtfulness” that went into drafting Portland’s version.
Drew described transgender student rights as “a patchwork” and said fewer than 10 school districts in Maine have official policies.
One of those is South Portland, which recently approved a policy that protects transgender students from bullying and ensures they can use restrooms and locker rooms for their expressed gender.
Melissa McStay, a social worker at Deering High School who was involved in crafting Portland’s policy, said it sends “a message that these kids are accepted and supported.”
“I feel we’ve been generally responsive,” McStay said, “but with this new policy there will be explicit support and (staff) training.”
Fitzgerald, the co-president of the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Club, said at the Nov. 14 meeting that the new policy is important not only because of its staff training requirement, but also because it ensures confidentiality and privacy for students.
Crocker said once the policy is approved by the School Board it would be “widely shared” and staff training would be “timely and ongoing.”
The policy defines gender identity as being “a person’s sincerely held core belief of their own gender, whether that individual identifies as male, female, both, neither or in some other way.”
And gender-expansive is defined as being “an umbrella term used to describe people who expand notions of gender expression and identity beyond what is perceived as the expected gender norms.”
“As a general matter,” the policy states, the “Portland Public Schools should try to avoid gender-based activities, policies, and practices except where they serve an important educational purpose.”
And, “In (any) facilities, activities, policies or practices when students may be separated by gender, students shall be able to participate in accordance with the gender identity asserted at school.”
While the School Department is required to use a student’s legal name on their official record, the policy adds that “the district shall use the student’s preferred name and pronouns consistent with their gender identity on all other documents including, but not limited to … classroom rosters, certificates, diplomas and yearbook.”
Izzy Smith, left, and Alexander Fitzgerald are co-presidents of the Genders & Sexualities Alliance Club at Deering High School. They spoke in favor of a new transgender student rights policy at the Nov. 14 Portland School Board meeting.