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St. Paul school board approves transgender policy

TwinCities.com / Saint Paul Pioneer Press

The St. Paul school board unanimously approved a new policy Tuesday that aims to make school more welcoming for transgender and gender-nonconforming students.

The policy sets the expectation that students' preferred name and pronoun be used at school and that teachers not separate students by gender without a compelling reason. It also will give transgender students access to the restrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity.

"I should be able to walk into a bathroom and not have people question if I'm supposed to be in there," Siren Lopez, a transgender teen girl, told the board.

Emma Santibanez, an 8-year-old transgender student at Wellstone Elementary, said she was outed as transgender during a summer camp. With the new policy, she said, "I feel safe again."

Critics, including the Minnesota Family Council, argue that the change in restroom access threatens the privacy and safety of all students.

Lawmakers sympathetic to those concerns are proposing to override the district's policy by changing state law. Twenty-six Republican state lawmakers have sponsored legislation that would require public school students to use facilities that match their sex at birth.

That bill and St. Paul's new gender-inclusion policy grew out of Minnesota State High School League high-profile discussions, which resulted in a path for transgender girls to play on girls sports teams.

As contentious as the statewide athletic policy was, the St.  

Paul vote never was in doubt. Board members expressed few concerns in previous meetings on the subject, and public comments at board meetings were overwhelmingly positive. A standing ovation followed Tuesday's vote.

 

"It's the right thing to do," board member John Brodrick said.

 

Now that the policy has passed, district administrators will draw up corresponding procedures to be approved by the superintendent.

Ryan Vernosh, the district's policy administrator, said the district is working on a process for families to request access to facilities that match their child's gender identity and add a "preferred" name and gender in the district's student information system.

A survey of transgender and gender-nonconforming students in Wisconsin, published last month, pointed to restrooms as a key issue. Students often felt unsafe and unwelcome in restrooms intended for either gender. They often avoided using restrooms at school or relied on unisex restrooms, which are sometimes inconvenient.

St. Paul Public Schools has at least one unisex restroom in each of its schools, typically in the nurse's office or staff-only offices. Vernosh said many principals in the district allow transgender students to use those restrooms.

However, Maine's supreme court last year ruled in favor of a transgender girl who had been forced to use a staff restroom. The order barred her school district from "refusing access by transgender students to school restrooms that are consistent with their gender identity."

Vernosh said there is growing legal precedent for transgender rights in school, and it's clear that those students endure more bullying and exclusion than most.

"Everyone needs to be able to use the facilities with their safety and humanity and dignity intact," Vernosh said in a recent interview.

He added: "Many of our students who are transgender say, 'I may not even want to use the boys bathroom, but I am a boy and I want that right."

Josh Verges can be reached at 651-228-2171.

Follow him at twitter.com/ua14

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