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Pittsburgh Public Schools board approves policy to protect transgender students

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, June 22, 2016, 11:03 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools board enacted on Wednesday its first districtwide policy outlining the rights, protections and support systems each school must provide for transgender students.

“We're moving forward on the right side of law and history,” said board member Moira Kaleida, who urged the district to consider such a policy this past fall after principals and legal experts alerted her to the need for one.

Teacher Devin Browne at Brashear High School in Beechview, which put in place a nearly identical policy two years ago, said the move protects “the most vulnerable kids in the whole district” from discrimination.

“And if it's a transgender kid of color, then they're dealing with the interaction of so many things working against them in this society,” said Browne, an openly gay French and Russian language teacher who co-sponsors his school's Gay Straight Alliance club. “City teachers in particular, they get it. They know that these kids need support, even if it might be something they don't understand, so they work on learning about it and ways to support them.”

The Transgender and Gender Expansive Students policy, effective immediately, provides guidance for educators, staff and students about students who identify with a gender other than their sex at birth. Eight pages of guidelines allow all students to use the bathrooms, wear the clothing and use a name appropriate to their gender identity.

“Under no circumstance should any student be required to use sex-segregated faculties that are inconsistent with their gender identity,” the policy states.

The policy says that any student may request alternative accommodations, such as a private office restroom, curtain partition or separate changing space if they are uncomfortable using same-sex facilities — but mandates that no transgender student can be required to do so. It requires schools to form “point teams” — groups of teachers, counselors, administrators and security officials given specialized training in responding to transgender and gender-expansive issues.

“It was creating a lot of confusion among students and parents as well as educators in the schools to not have a comprehensive policy,” said Vanessa Davis, a founding member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group THRIVE Southwest PA.

Davis developed the guidelines first implemented at Brashear High School based on model policy developed by GLSEN, or the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a New York-based national advocacy group.

The district discussed the draft policy at two meetings and a public workshop. Kaleida said the district received about 400 emails in favor of the policy and just 20 against it.

Cletus Abate, who will have four children enrolled in PPS schools this fall, opposed the policy and said she feels like the process was “rushed” through without sufficient time for dissenters to weigh in or all parents to find out about it. She said she's worried about “age-appropriate education” and whether the policy applies to transgender adults on campus.

“Bathrooms and locker rooms shouldn't be co-ed. Girls should use girls' rooms, boys should use boys' rooms,” said Abate of Overbrook. “There are girls that were harmed in their life and the thought of sharing the bathroom with a boy, whether he's dressed as a girl or not, is very uncomfortable for them.”

Davis said concerns that the policy could intrude on the privacy of or endanger non-transgender students are “misplaced.”

“Trans-students are not looking to prey on other students,” Davis said. “They're looking to use the bathroom for what the bathroom was for, to use the locker room what the locker room was for.”

“There's way too much focus on restrooms and locker rooms,” echoed Browne. “These are kids who want to run in, use the restroom and they want to get out.”

He said that Brashear High School, among the largest in the region with 1,500 students, has “had zero incidents” related to its transgender policy in two years. He said no students have complained or raised objections.

“We have kids who come from very conservative religious backgrounds, we have kids who are atheists, we have all sorts of diversity at this school,” Browne said, “and we've been able to make this work.”

The PPS board approved the policy unanimously, though board member Cynthia Falls voiced a concern that “different points of view were not given significant opportunities to present their information.”

“I am voting ‘yes' because it's a federal regulation,” Falls said. “But I do think we need to do due diligence in (listening to) people who have different viewpoints.”

School districts across the country are under intense scrutiny about their treatment of transgender students.

In mid-May, the Obama administration issued a directive calling for public schools to permit transgender student to use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen identity.

It's unclear how many transgender youths there are because no one tracks that information.

PPS school Solicitor Ira Weiss, whose law firm represents 14 local school districts, has said he is working with each of them to develop policies to support and accommodate students who were assigned one gender at birth but identify with the other. Officials in Pine-Richland and Greensburg Salem are among Western Pennsylvania districts considering such a move.

“It's going to take time for everybody to get on the same page,” Davis said. “It's going to take training, and it's a culture shift, so things aren't going to happen perfectly as soon as this policy gets passed.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com .

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