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Amid Bullying And Suicides, Kansas Schools Slowly Promising To Protect Transgender Students

Wichita Public Schools is considering adding explicit protections for transgender students and staff this year.

Public speakers told the district’s school board on Monday that they want to see the nondiscrimination policy updated to include gender identity as a protected class. Some were activists; others were moms.

Transgender students shared their own stories of discrimination.

High school student Alec Strouse said being required to change in the women’s locker room had a severe impact on his mental health.

“I was severely bullied in there,” Strouse told the board. “Multiple times I did stay home because I was afraid of the comments that I got.”

If Wichita does add gender identity to its policy, it will join several school districts across the state that have done the same this year. Manhattan added the protections in May; Olathe made the changes in March.

De Soto did so three days earlier. Students from two of De Soto’s high schools asked the board to update its policy.

Transgender teens are three times more likely to attempt suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a third are bullied.

Topeka Public Schools board member Peg McCarthy thinks growing youth suicide numbers — and the increasing support for transgender rights — is causing districts to add more protections for those students.

“We know that transgender students in particular are one of our must vulnerable groups,” said McCarthy, who is also a psychologist working with transgender patients.

Topeka Public Schools has included transgender students in its nondiscrimination policy for about a decade.

Not all school districts have moved toward transgender rights. Derby Public Schools allowed transgender students to use the bathroom that fit their gender identity, but reversed that policy in 2017.

The Kansas Association of School Boards advises against districts updating their policy to include specific language protecting transgender students. It thinks those students are already included in federal Title IX protections, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by education programs receiving federal funding.

Wichita Public Schools board member Ben Blankley said that updating the policy is needed to make a clear statement of support for transgender students and staff.

"To implement it at the local level seems to be the strongest statement we can make," Blankley said. "These kids do exist. These kids do matter."

Wichita’s superintendent Alicia Thompson will put together a report on the district’s nondiscrimination policy. The board will use that as a starting point for any discussion about adding new language.

District middle school teacher Kendall Hawkins said she’s been talking to the board for months about the issue. Hawkins said she hasn’t been discriminated against as a transgender employee working at Mead Middle School.

But she said students in her school’s gender and sexuality alliance organization told her they have been. One of the most common problems is staff referring to transgender students by the wrong names or pronoun.

Hawkins said the district is behind on supporting transgender students.

“Our students are the ones paying the price for it,” Hawkins said. “We’re seeing issues with attendance and academic progress those students are having.”

During Wichita’s board of education meeting, some speakers opposed changing the policy. Out of the 10 public commenters, three said they are afraid of students being indoctrinated.

“Jesus loves them,” Wichita resident Jeanne Garrelts told the board, referring to transgender students. “But he does have standards of right and wrong.” Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha or email bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org.

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Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit .

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.
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