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'You are putting my friends at risk': Kansas school district's proposed transgender policy sparks division

Collage of documents that explain Gardner Edgerton School District 231's policy on how to reference the pronouns of students.
Photo Illustration by Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
The Gardner Edgerton School District is considering a policy that would require students to use the restroom or locker room that corresponds with their “gender assigned at birth.” An earlier policy would have also required students to use the pronouns that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate.

A new proposal scaled back a divisive plan introduced to the Gardner Edgerton School District in July. However, former and current students at Monday's board meeting said the proposed policy did not go far enough to protect transgender students.

A contentious policy for transgender students drew dozens of parents to the Gardner Edgerton Board of Education meeting on Monday night.

A new proposal was up for discussion following a divisive plan introduced in July, which would have required students to use the name, pronouns and restrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificates.

Former and current students in attendance on Monday said the proposed policy did not go far enough to protect transgender students.

“You are putting my friends at risk. You are putting the people I care about at risk. Students know what they need, and that is acceptance. If they can't have it at home, they need it at school,” said Elizabeth Fiedler, a senior at Gardner Edgerton High School.

The revised policy would still require students to use the restroom or locker room that corresponds with their “gender assigned at birth,” or use a unisex facility. However, it also states staff should address students by their preferred name and pronouns.

Under the guidance, a transgender student or their parent would need to notify a district administrator or counselor that they want to be recognized in a consistent manner with their gender identity. It would also require parents of students under 18 to be notified, unless the district determined otherwise after consultation with its attorney.

Ahead of the meeting, the ACLU of Kansas said the policy wasn’t sufficient at providing teachers and staff guidance on how to handle a situation where a student doesn’t want their identity disclosed to their family.

“Revealing a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents can lead to those students experiencing physical abuse or being kicked out of their homes,” the ACLU said in a letter to the school board.

The ACLU also warned the board that the policy could violate federal anti-discrimination laws and students’ equal protection rights. It noted that there are no state or federal statutes that make schools require students to use the restrooms or locker rooms that correspond with their sex assigned at birth.

Beyond legal concerns, several parents, teachers and community members also told the board that the proposed policy could further alienate and harm the mental health of transgender students, who already face higher rates of suicide.

Still, other parents spoke in support of the board’s original proposal, which would have also included discipline for students who violated its policies. Some parents also expressed concerns that teachers or administrators would potentially not be required to disclose their child’s gender identity.

“We need to have a baseline of trust with the staff and teachers that have so much influence on our children. A policy that allows or encourages teachers to hide things about my child is unacceptable,” said Melissa Hershey, the mother of two sons in the district.

After more than an hour of public comment, Superintendent Brian Huff said the board sought to create “a safe, welcoming environment” for students.

“We're a public school. We invite everybody to come. We want to provide a good educational environment for all students, and we want to provide a good work environment for all of our staff,” Huff said. “So we have a lot of balancing and a lot of competing interests when it comes to a situation like this.”

Huff said making a final policy is going to be a long process and will include more input. The board did not take a vote on a policy at Monday’s meeting, but is working on a survey to send to staff on the issue.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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