GILFORD — The parents of a Gilford transgender student who is struggling to assert her identity issued a heartfelt plea for inclusion — without separation from peers or singling her out — during an animated discussion about a hot-button issue for school districts around the state: a gender inclusion policy.
More than 80 residents of Gilford and the Lakes Region packed the Gilford School Board meeting Monday to air and hear impassioned appeals on what has become a complicated civil rights question for many families.
It was the school board’s first temperature-taking of community response to the district’s attempt to satisfy the requirements of a law that was signed by Gov. Chris Sununu in July. It requires school districts to come up with their own policies prohibiting discrimination based on age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, race, ethnicity and national origin, disability, marital status or family status.
In its initial draft, the policy calls for allowing transgender and gender non-conforming students to use bathrooms, be identified by names and pronouns of their choosing, and participate on sports teams in accordance with their consistently-used gender identity — perhaps not the one listed on birth certificates or other legal documents. It also says student needs should be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The draft now goes back to the school board’s policy committee, which will have a public meeting Nov. 12, during which the policy will be revised. Public comment will be heard at the board’s Nov. 4 and Dec. 2 meetings before any action is taken to approve, reject, or return it to committee for modification, said school board President Chris McDonough.
The board heard plenty on Monday night.
“My hope is that they would delineate policies based on ages and stages and cognitive development,” said Jade Wood, who has a daughter in Gilford Elementary School. “I don’t think teachers are trained, and parents aren’t fully aware of what’s going on. As a community, we can come up with an approach if we have a mature conversation.”
Gender identity and inclusion, and how that can be accomplished in schools, is a controversial topic for parents, school administrators, and students — and is related to personal notions of fairness, tolerance and student safety. It touches on a community’s values — and its ability to reach a compromise in the face of strong, competing feelings — including compassion and fear.
The challenge facing school boards across the Lakes Region and state is to create a document that contains guidelines that respect affected individuals without disregarding the rights of others.
Monday’s forum was a respectful exchange of polarized, sympathetic or reasoned views expressed by Gilford parents, and at least 20 residents who came from outside the school district.
Don Giguere of Tilton came to show support as a member of the gay community. “I think the schools are put in a difficult position in that they need to adhere to law as it’s written, for the rights of the students involved.”
Nancy McKeon of Sanbornton has nieces and nephews in Gilford schools, and said she’s concerned about the proposed policy’s effect on girls — and that what Gilford eventually adopts will set a precedent for other area schools.
“We’re not against these people. A single bathroom would work,” McKeon said. If a boy walks into a gender-inclusive or female bathroom, the girls have no privacy. "They’re just in a little stall. They’re talking about opening up locker rooms. That’s going to allow crazy things to happen.”
Kyle Sanborn, parent of a son and two daughters in Gilford schools, said he’s concerned about breaches of children’s privacy and free speech. When the school district compels preferred pronouns, “they’re mandating the use of speech and that’s a blatant violation of the First Amendment. No one is saying a child shouldn’t be allowed to express themselves any way they want. But when that expression infringes on someone else, that’s when I have a problem.”
Sanborn said surveys show that one in nine school-age girls has been sexually assaulted or raped by a male. “Do you think it’s reasonable to expect them to use the single-sex bathroom” with males?
This policy is “in complete conflict with deeply held positions of faith,” said Skip Murphy of Gilford. “How do we lay out strictures for each of these protected classes” listed in the state’s anti-discrimination statute?
Jake Maxwell of Gilford read letters from third- and fourth-graders that his family has received regarding his transgender child, with messages including: “Dear Family, we are sorry for all the hate you have experienced. We believe children can be anything. We support kindness. We think school needs to be a safe place for everyone, whether they’re a girl, boy, or whatever. Everyone needs to be treated with respect.”
His wife, Abbey Maxwell of Gilford, said, “People have spoken out with ignorance and fear of transgender people and my family in particular. At first I thought I would lock the doors and hide. Today, I’m having to be brave for (my child) and all other non-conforming students in this district. The research shows that enacting this policy does no harm.” The American academies of pediatrics and child and adolescent psychiatry support transgender rights, Maxwell said.
Michael Graham said a Gilford High student cut off one of his son CJ’s dreadlocks in the cafeteria. “At age 26, he took his own life. Anything we can do to make schools safer and more affirming for students, I am for.”
Many voices championed compassionate and informed compromise.
Joy Southworth of Gilford, mother of eight- and 10-year-old students, said: “My family doesn’t discriminate against any race, religion, or sexual orientation. We want all children to have their rights protected, their privacy respected, and their safety and comfort insured. Let’s work together and come up with a fair solution that will address needs, rights, comfort level and safety for all of the children. It is essential that all voices are heard and accounted for.”
Linda Shanley of Gilford retired after working 25 years as a school nurse in Bristol, where she wrote school board policies for 11 years. She said she can’t begin to count “how many students came to me because they didn’t feel safe in the bathroom.” Many don’t use the bathroom until they get home and have health issues as a result, she said. The district policy needs to make sure every child feels safe in locker rooms and bathrooms, she said. “Every bathroom should be a single bathroom. It’s come to that: safety for all students.”
The law says districts have to have a policy, but doesn’t define discrimination, or specify a deadline, policy wording, or methods of implementation, said William Phillips, staff attorney for the New Hampshire School Boards Association. That’s up to districts to decide.
“This takes an area of the state’s non-discrimination policy and applies it to school kids, but doesn’t define” what that looks like, said Palana Belken, a trans justice organizer at the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “All schools need to come up with a system of accommodation.”
So far, 19 New Hampshire school districts have adopted transgender and gender-inclusive policies, according to the ACLU-NH. The first was the Oyster River School District in Durham. That happened in 2015, and was led by the efforts of a guidance counselor and one student. Last month, the Gorham School Board voted, 7-1, to adopt a transgender policy supporting LGBTQ students in grades K through 12, in response to efforts by a graduating senior who did a senior project supporting a gender-inclusion policy that would benefit students moving forward.
The New Hampshire School Boards Association has furnished a legal template for schools to consider. “Generally speaking, schools adopt what we write and make modifications necessary to fit their circumstances,” said Phillips. “Whether a school district adopts a specific one is up to the school district.” Some school districts incorporate changes into existing policies regarding privacy protection, Phillips said.