Scarborough School Board advances policy for transgender students

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SCARBOROUGH — A proposed policy addressing the rights and needs of transgender students is being lauded by all members of the School Board.

The board supported the wide-ranging policy in a first reading June 2. A second reading – where the measure is expected to be adopted – is scheduled for the next meeting, Thursday, June 16. 

The policy addresses the need to create an environment that is “safe and free from discrimination, harassment and bullying” for transgender students, according to the language. It includes definitions of key terms, such as gender identity and gender expression, as well as guidance on specific issues like privacy and how to correctly use the names and pronouns of transgender students. It would apply to dress codes, bathrooms, locker rooms and any other facilities or activities separated by gender.

In many ways, the policy it is a spin-off from the precedent-setting, 5-1 decision of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2014 – the first of its kind in the country –that granted transgender students the right to use the school bathroom that matches their preferred gender, rather than their biological gender.  

That decision was “very consistent with federal policy,” and has served the district very well in the two years since, Superintendent George Entwistle III said at last week’s meeting.

There have been no reports in Scarborough of conflict between transgender students and staff, or around bathroom use. But with an increase of court cases around similar situations across the country, many districts are becoming proactive.

In Portland, for example, School Board Chairwoman Marnie Morrionne said Tuesday that the schools would form a task force to discuss the need for a transgender student policy. 

Scarborough School Board member Kate Miles said at the meeting last week that in May, the board received a joint letter from the Maine Department of Education and the Department of Justice that included non-binding guidelines for how districts should address the issue. 

That, coupled with the warning that districts who opted not to adopt more formal language could be in violation of Title IX – the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on gender in educational settings and activities for institutions receiving federal funding – has pushed some districts to act. 

“I’m very proud that we took those guidelines one step further and actually turned them into a policy,” Miles said. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s something that we can do to really ensure that all students in Scarborough are not only treated fairly, but also have a learning environment that’s conducive to both their educational and social needs.”

Other members of the board also firmly supported the proposal. 

Jacquelyn Perry said the policy is about fairness. “I can’t imagine, quite frankly, for the individual and for that individual’s family, what it would be like to feel like you’re not in the right body,” she said.

“To hoist that on a child who can’t comprehend what’s happening when they’re 2 or 3 years old … it’s just incomprehensible,” Perry said. 

“I just think it’s important that everyone knows, in this community, in this school community and in this state, that we stand to support all of our children. I think that that is absolutely the first thing we have to do every time,” she said. 

Chairwoman Donna Beeley agreed, and said not only would the measure provide direct guidance for teachers and staff, but it would provide formal acceptance and support for transgender students.

“We’re just one conversation away from having that conversation of being asked, ‘What is your policy?'” Beeley said.

Enacting the policy would provide assurance that the district is “acknowledging and accepting all of our students, (and) protecting and providing safety for all of our students,” she said. 

“We teach our students civil rights – to me, this is a civil right,” she said. “You have a right to be who you are, and you have a right to not be discriminated against for who you are.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.