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St. Paul schools considering gender-inclusion policy

Pioneer Press, 1/14/2015 

On the heels of a controversial policy for Minnesota's transgender high school student-athletes, St. Paul Public Schools is developing the state's first comprehensive gender-inclusion policy for a school district.

During a work session Tuesday, board members expressed support for the tenets of a new policy that would reach well beyond athletics and into classrooms and school restrooms.

Ryan Vernosh, the district's policy administrator, gave the key points:

-- Students and staff would be expected to use a person's preferred name and pronoun.

-- Schools would be barred from separating students by gender without good reason.

-- All students could participate in the single-gender sports and other school activities that align to their gender identity.

-- Students would have access to restrooms and other facilities that best align with their gender identity.

The policy still is in development, as are the corresponding procedures, so it's unclear, for example, exactly what restroom accommodations schools will make for students.

Board member Louise Seeba said St. Paul schools have a reputation for welcoming LGBT students, and "it makes sense that we're the first district" to codify that in policy.

Board members also acknowledged it will be a struggle for many to be more inclusive in the way they speak and behave.

John Brodrick, part of the committee that is working on the policy, said the district must listen to critics as the policy advances toward adoption, and must be patient with employees who make well-intentioned mistakes.

"If we're talking about inclusion, if we talk about love and respect, that's got to be for everyone," Brodrick said.

But Mary Doran, the board chairwoman, said she won't tolerate the "fear-mongering and misinformation" she said pervaded the debate over the transgender policy the Minnesota State High School League recently passed for athletics.

"I want to make it perfectly clear I am always willing to hear constructive dialogue," she said, adding that she wouldn't listen to "somebody who's going to come and tear our kids down."

Autumn Leva, the Minnesota Family Council spokeswoman who lobbied against the MSHSL policy, said by phone Tuesday that she wasn't aware the St. Paul district was working on its own policy. Given a description of what was discussed, she said it sounds as if the policy "absolutely creates safety and privacy concerns" if students with biologically different genders share the same restrooms.

During the meeting, Vernosh assured board members that the procedures being developed will accommodate all students.

Superintendent Valeria Silva said the policy may not change what people believe, but for employees, it must affect how they behave.

"I expect our teachers to learn the language that respects all our kids," Silva said. "We are here to not damage kids. We are here to help all kids."

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

Follow him at twitter.com/ua14.

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