Faced with action by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, members of the Shenendehowa Central School District Board of Education adopted a policy allowing transgender high school students to request access to a bathroom or locker facilities that correspond with their identifying sex.
The school board adopted the new policy by a vote of 4-2 Tuesday evening after hearing roughly an hour of public comments — many critical or outright decrying the new regulation. But ultimately, a majority of board members believed codifying the policy was the best decision to safeguard students’ rights and prevent the district from facing legal difficulties in the future.
“This is a really difficult and complex issue,” board President Robert Casey said. “It’s a balancing act between privacy and protecting the rights of all students. … Kicking the can down the road until we have to deal with it — either because of a student situation or because the law changes — I don’t think that’s practical, nor has that been our past method of operation.”
Previously, Shenendehowa allowed students to request so-called single-user bathrooms or changing areas through their principal. The new policy codifies this process among the district’s elementary and middle schools, while providing a new avenue for transgender students to pursue at the high school.
“This is not an area that we would desire to be dealing with if it were not for the fact that it were basically thrust upon us. This is not something we have decided to be the leaders or the groundbreakers,” board member Gary DiLallo said. “The reality is the Office of Civil Rights has regulations and made determinations that have the force of law. And those determinations have consistently come down against single accommodations when they have been challenged.”
Board member Mary Blaauboer wasn’t swayed. In voting against the policy, she said it seemed far out of proportion to address the few cases of transgender students the district encounters.
“This policy recommendation has the effect of making high school lavatories and locker rooms biologically co-educational, and I do not support that,” she said. “The scope and scale of this recommendation is not proportional to the anticipated need — like building a dock for an ocean liner when a rowboat is expected.”
Under the new policy, students wanting to use group facilities not corresponding with their biological sex will be allowed to petition the district superintendent “or a designee, in collaboration with the applicable building level administrator.” A decision on whether to allow the student to use a facility corresponding with their identifying sex will be based on a variety of factors, including satisfactory documentation of gender identity; the age or grade level and maturity of the student; the protection of privacy for all students; the intent to maximize social integration; the intent to minimize stigmatization; and the intent to ensure equal opportunity to participate.
The policy also stresses transgender staff members can request single-user bathrooms and changing facilities. Transgender staff members, however, cannot use bathrooms or locker rooms that do not correspond with their biological sex, the policy states.
Over the years, the district has previously had several students request separate changing facilities. A district spokeswoman said no transgendered students have requested using facilities not corresponding with their biological sex, but several parents said they believed one was already granted such access.
Many speaking during the packed school board meeting blasted the board for contemplating a policy that risks making their children uncomfortable. Others criticized them for not reaching out to the public before crafting such a contentious regulation.
“This policy has totally taken away the faith and confidence I’ve had in the board all these years,” said Jim Watersdorf, a parent of four Shenendehowa graduates and a grandparent of a student soon to attend district schools.
Katelyn Adams, a parent of four, said the policy makes her feel unsafe.
“And I know many parents feel the same way,” she told the board. “This is wrong, and you know it.”
Others applauded the board for taking up the issue and criticized those who refuse to keep an open mind toward transgender issues. Parent Deb Vincent said her daughter has spent two summers at a sleepaway camp where she shared a cabin and a bathroom with transgender children.
“I assure you she wasn’t threatened in any way — physically, sexually or emotionally,” she said. “In fact, she came back much stronger for that. It’s an amazing thing when you open up and show true acceptance of what other people are.”
Shenendehowa senior Kirstin O’Sullivan said the students themselves don’t seem to have an issue with the policy. Instead, she said, many feel it will help bring compassion to the district.
“From the people I’ve talked to, this policy really isn’t an issue for them,” she said. “It’s an issue for their parents.”
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