Transgender students and their rights on public school campuses have created national debates among school officials. The West Allis-West Milwaukee District is no different.
At a workshop during the Monday, Dec. 19, school board meeting, West Allis-West Milwaukee Superintendent Marty Lexmond and others weighed in on the dilemma of providing services and protecting the safety of transgenders without intruding on the academic and extracurricular lives of the main student body.
School districts are grappling with controversial policies that largely pertain to the use of bathrooms and locker rooms.
This school year, the district has students in at least two schools whose current gender identities differ from their biological ones. The scenario, coupled with changing cultural norms and a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling, prompted a discussion about district policies and procedures.
The heart of the controversy is rooted in anti-discrimination language, which lays out a number of provisions, including calls on districts not to display bias against such characteristics as race, religious affiliation and sex.
The nation’s top court will rule on whether the term “sex” encompasses gender identity, in addition to the traditional definition of biological gender. If so, districts might have to give transgender students the opportunity to use restrooms and locker rooms, if requested, based on their desired gender.
“The context comes from our principals, who are calling us (at the district office) for guidance,” Lexmond said at the workshop.
So far, West Allis-West Milwaukee has not incurred any challenges in meeting transgender students’ needs during the regular school, Lexmond said, adding that appropriate accommodations have been made to give the students access to single-use restroom facilities that typically are reserved for faculty members.
Although no formal action was taken at Monday’s meeting, the board by consensus gave Lexmond the green light to proceed with current protocol. When the district learns a student is identifying by a gender different from their biological one, the district is adopting a specific plan.
In extenuating circumstances, such as a transgender student not wishing to use a private restroom, Lexmond said a closed-session meeting would be held with the school board to discuss the student’s specific needs.
Lexmond and the board also delved into some of the complexities surrounding the issue, including student records, which must reflect the person’s legal name. Depending upon the circumstance, those records could differ from the name the student identifies by in class.
The discussion carried a broad spectrum of circumstances — from students who are considering changing their identity to those who are already undergoing the transition.
“Parents are ideally involved in the process, but it’s case-by-case,” Lexmond said, noting that the district would honor a student’s desire for confidentiality from parents if safety concerns arose. Those concerns, Lexmond said, would be documented.
Board members offered varied viewpoints, making the discussion a robust one.
“I’m a little uncomfortable about this, and I have to be upfront and honest with you about it,” board member Sue Sujecki said. “I know things have evolved. I want to be sensitive to the transgender students … but at the same time, we have to be considerate of everyone.”
Fellow board member Dan Bailey said he was concerned about the policies and procedures and their fluidity as the ruling from the Supreme Court lays on the horizon.
“My main concern, however, is the safety of the (transgender) student,” Bailey said.
This is not the first time transgender students’ rights have been discussed in West Allis-West Milwaukee. Attempting to refute a previous concern, board member Pat Kerhin emphasized the district has met transgender students’ needs at no additional cost to taxpayers.
“We’ve been able to accommodate their needs without a penny spent,” Kerhin said.
The Supreme Court has not set a firm timetable on when it will take up transgender students’ rights in public schools, though it is expected to come at some point in 2017.