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Highline Schools The Latest Wash. District To Consider Transgender Student Policy

Mark Stahl
AP Photo
A bathroom to accommodate transgender students at Kent State University in Ohio.

Where should a transgender student in a public school use the restroom? In which locker room should the student shower or change clothes? And how should a teacher refer to a student: as a he, a she, or neither?

The Highline Public Schools Board will vote Wednesday night on a new, formal set of guidelines to help staff answer these questions.

'The Issues Are So Unique'

If Highline's board adopts the policy, the district would join at least half a dozen others in Washington, including Aberdeen and Sequim, that have adopted formal policies on accommodating transgender students in the past year alone.

In 2011, the state legislature required districts to adopt these rules, in part to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) students. But several districts approached experts at the Washington State School Directors Association, asking for more specific guidance on how to handle issues with transgender students.

"The reason we [created] a separate [model policy] for transgender students is because the issues are so unique. You're dealing with changes that have to take place in schools in order to accommodate these students such as, sometimes, separate bathroom facilities if that's what the student wants," said Heidi Maynard, director of policy and legal services for the association, also known as WSSDA.

Maynard added the requests for more specific guidelines mainly came from smaller districts who "wanted to do the right things" to accommodate transgender students.

"They just weren't sure how to go about it," she said.

Opening A Line Of Dialogue

Highline's proposed guidelines, which closely follow the WSSDA model policy, call for building principals to meet immediately with a transgender student who is new to the district or currently-enrolled students who change their gender expression.

"It just sets the plate for having the conversation. It gives school staff some tools when a family comes in and says, 'Hey, this is what's going on,'" said Holly Ferguson, the Highline School District's director of policy development. "It can prompt you, as a staff member, to think through various questions like, 'What name would you like to be called? What pronoun would you like to have used? Let's work out which bathroom is going to be used, which locker room is going to be used.'"

The purpose of the guidelines, Ferguson added, is to "make it clear to people that these are OK questions to ask."

What The Guidelines Say

The proposed policy makes clear that privacy laws bar staff members from disclosing a student's transgender status to others unless the student has given approval. It also says that, while a student's legal name must be used on official documents, the district's electronic student record system should include information on a transgender student's chosen name and gender pronoun.

"When communicating with parents of transgender or gender-nonconforming students, school employees will refrain from the use of gender pronouns and refer to the student by name whenever practicable," the proposed policy states.

A similar guideline appears in Seattle Public Schools' transgender students policy, which has been on the books since 2012.

Since the WSSDA model policy came out in October 2013, school boards from the Mabton, Griffin, Bethel and Washougal districts have taken up the proposals.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.